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Q&A with Kate Fitzpatrick on Water Rights and Conservation

The United Nations recently designated 2013 as the International Year of Water Cooperation, drawing attention to the growing scarcity of the world’s greatest resource. As controversies over water continue in the western United States, creative solutions are needed to promote cooperation between competing users. 

Kate Fitzpatrick is a 2012 Enviropreneur Institute alum, where she developed market-based strategies for water conservation. Kate is currently Program Manager at the Deschutes River Conservancy, a non-profit that restores streamflow and water quality in the Deschutes Basin in central Oregon. We thank Kate for answering our questions about water rights and conservation in the West.

Q: How has water right allocation in the West dewatered streams and rivers?

A: Water in the West was allocated according to a 160-year-old system of “prior appropriation,” which is based on a first-come, first-served principle. Water users who claimed they were putting the water to “beneficial use,” diverting it for purposes like irrigation or mining, were granted a water right to use that water in perpetuity. By the early 1900s, the rivers and streams in much of the West were over appropriated, meaning more water rights had been granted than there was water available. This system has led to many dewatered streams during the summer months when water is diverted for out-of-stream use.

In Oregon, the use of water instream for fish and wildlife, recreation, or watershed function was not recognized under state water law as a beneficial use until 1987. The 1987 Instream Water Rights Act created the ability for conservation interests to participate in water markets by leasing or purchasing senior water rights and protecting instream flows.

Q: What is the Deschutes River Conservancy and how do they protect instream flows?

A: The Deschutes River Conservancy (DRC) is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization with a mission to restore streamflow and water quality to the Deschutes Basin. The DRC was formed in 1996 by an unusual coalition of Native American tribes, environmental groups, and irrigation districts. These diverse groups saw severe water conflict in neighboring communities like the Klamath Basin and had a vision that the community could work together to address water issues using market-based incentives. The DRC restores streamflow using tools such as water leasing, purchasing water rights, and investing in large-scale water conservation projects where the saved water can be protected instream.

Q: What are your concerns with the current tools of leasing and purchasing water rights to restore instream flows?

A: Leasing and purchasing water rights have been very effective tools to restore flows in many areas throughout the West. In the Deschutes, we have used these tools to meet the state’s streamflow target in Whychus Creek, a critical tributary for steelhead and salmon, something that has never been done before in Oregon. But these tools do have limitations. Water leases and purchases are dependent on state administrative processes, which is time-intensive and sometimes unpredictable. In addition, when you purchase a water right, the right is held in trust by the state in perpetuity, leaving little flexibility to adapt to variable flow needs or changing future conditions. Traditional water transactions also trade one value of water (e.g. agriculture) for another (e.g. fish and wildlife), and rely on conservation grant funding, which is inherently finite. Perhaps most importantly, the complexity of the institutional, political, and hydrologic context around water management often limits the use of these tools.

Q: Is there an alternative to these tools?

A: Groups working in flow restoration can achieve greater ecological outcomes through aligning incentives among varied interests. This means moving towards a dynamic model of water management that maximizes diverse values, taps multiple revenue streams, and incentivizes the reallocation of water at a decentralized and context-specific level.

In the case of the Deschutes Basin reservoirs, we are incentivizing multi-faceted changes in water management that will ultimately lead to flow restoration. This involves packaging water conservation projects and inter-district water rights transfers that will reallocate water from a senior irrigation district to a junior irrigation district. This increases the water reliability of the junior district, giving them more flexibility to release stored water in the winter when it is needed instream. These instream releases benefit the senior district’s hydropower revenue by optimizing existing hydropower facilities downstream. Other hydropower interests have an incentive to invest in the portfolio of projects that enables increased instream flows through their facilities. Cities, as well, can invest to restore surface flows and meet mitigation requirements for new groundwater pumping. Through considering the needs of diverse partners and aligning the appropriate incentives for investment and action, we can reach streamflow goals that would have otherwise been politically or institutionally impossible.

The outcome of this collaborative planning approach will be a decentralized solution that is inherently adaptive to future changing conditions, that maximizes multiple values of water, and taps diverse revenue streams. This approach is heavily dependent on place-based collaboration and results in a more durable solution that strengthens community resiliency.

Water issues are highly contextual and the appropriate tools will vary with the context. Traditional water transactions are very effective tools in certain situations. But as water issues become increasingly complex, seeking solutions by aligning the incentives of multiple partners can create the ability to optimize values, harness new sources of investment, and build in the durability and adaptability that creates community and ecological resiliency.

For more PERC Q&As, visit the series archive. Related PERC publication: Environmental Water Markets: Restoring Streams Through Trade, by Brandon Scarborough.

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