Help Advocate for Disaster Relief and Drought Resiliency
The below letter outlines the Disaster Relief Funds that are available.
What is the problem?
The entire western US is facing unprecedented drought and heat conditions. The impact is especially pronounced in central Oregon’s North Unit Irrigation District (NUID), which has a thriving agricultural commodity and specialty seed industry. NUID is entirely dependent on irrigation for production agriculture and is facing the third consecutive year of significantly below average snowpack and rainfall, causing a depletion of irrigation storage reservoirs.
Drought conditions and low reservoir levels have forced NUID to cut water allocations to farmers below 40% of normal, the lowest level in the 75-year history of the irrigation district. The financial impact of scarce water, combined with mid-season rationing, has been exacerbated by extreme heat during pollination and peak water demand. Most farmers are leaving farmland fallow and trying to survive on less than half of their normal production but are now anticipating disaster-level yields for some crops and lack of water to plant fields for the 2022 crop year.
The communities in Jefferson County are some of the most agriculture dependent economies in Oregon. Irrigated farms and related businesses are by far the largest employers, tax base and local economic foundation. Additionally, Jefferson County has one of the most culturally and racially diverse and vulnerable low-income populations in the state.
Why is North Unit Irrigation District facing unique challenges?
NUID has a junior water right in the Deschutes Basin. However, despite perennial water scarcity, NUID farmers and ag businesses have become one of the most water-efficient irrigated regions in the country and have worked for decades to develop unique international specialty seed markets, including becoming the global leader in carrot seed production. The drought and disaster conditions create devastating losses for farmers in the short-term and threaten the sustainability of valuable niche markets in the long-term.
NUID has been engaged in a collaborative effort to develop a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) to comply with the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and protect the threatened Oregon Spotted Frog and other species in the Deschutes and Crooked River basins. The implementation of the HCP has the potential to be a major ESA success story of a natural resource industry working together with federal agencies and environmental interests to improve a river ecosystem while sustaining family farms and the local economy. Unfortunately, obligations to US Fish and Wildlife under the HCP compound the severity of the drought. The financial and economic consequences to NUID—and the irrigators and family farms it serves—threaten the ability to meet HCP obligations, putting at risk over a decade of effort to conserve water, improve river health and maintain the viability of irrigated agriculture.
Farmers throughout NUID began the year farming a fraction of their farmland to conserve water. Now many farms are anticipating disaster-level yields for some crops due to extreme heat, water rationing and water shut-off two months before the end of the irrigation season. Unfortunately, as revenue shrinks dramatically, expenses are the same or higher as farmers struggle to pay for overhead and inputs (including the same water fees for less water), mortgage and lease payments, and costs to maintain soil health and viability of fallowed farmland taken out of production.
What can Governor Brown do to help?
- Allocating funds directly to irrigation districts facing severe water shortages, such as NUID, to help ensure the irrigation district remains financially solvent and provide financial assistance to farmers.
- Allocating funds to provide aid to farmers to cover fixed costs associated with farmland that is fallowed during the drought and compensate farmers for good stewardship practices on fallowed land to maintain soil health and mitigate the environmental impact of drought.
- Creating a statewide fund to address gaps in USDA insurance and disaster programs. Many crops, especially specialty crops, qualify for limited, if any, federal assistance—especially during such severe drought and disaster conditions.