A group of Westland Irrigation District patrons is mounting its own public information campaign to provide greater knowledge and transparency of water law in the Umatilla Basin.
The effort comes in the middle of a lawsuit filed against Westland by other district members who claim they are being cheated out of their senior water rights. The litigation prompted Westland to abandon the Central Project in May, which would have secured water from the Columbia River.
In response, the Westland Water Users Group formed over the summer with a core team consisting of Kevan and Patty Horn, Mike Taylor, Hoss Hodges, Rob Cox and Raymon Smith. The goal, Cox said, is to educate patrons so they can make more informed decisions in the future.
“The district is going to have future opportunities and issues that come up,” Cox said. “We want people to vote on those things based on the best information available.”
Together, the group has researched the history of Westland dating back to 1862, when Umatilla County was first established. It has also compiled a number of fact sheets explaining how water is delivered and water rights are managed within the district.
The group is not affiliated with the Westland board of directors or manager.
“We just wanted the patrons to be educated,” Cox said.
Losing the Central Project especially hurt, Hodges said, because it cost farmers the chance to grow potentially more valuable crops. Unlike the neighboring Hermiston and Stanfield irrigation districts, Westland does not have the ability to pump water from the Columbia River when flows in the Umatilla River drop below a certain point to protect fish.
That means Westland relies solely on Mother Nature — as well as supplemental water stored in McKay Reservoir — during irrigation season. The $14.4 million Central Project, designed by the Northeast Oregon Water Association, would have allowed the district to draw mitigated Columbia River water for patrons who agreed to buy in to the pipeline.
Instead, Westland board members backed out of the proposal in order to defend the district against the misappropriation lawsuit. Patty Horn said it was the second time the district has failed to capitalize on Columbia River water, and she did not want to see it happen again.
“I think if there was an educational clarification to the patrons, it would be really worthwhile,” Horn said.
The lawsuit against Westland, filed in Umatilla County Circuit Court, accuses the district of misappropriating senior water rights from 2010-2016 at the benefit of a few larger farms with junior rights. The plaintiffs are seeking a combined $4.14 million in damages.
Though the Westland Water Users Group insists it does not take sides in the case, it estimates that if the lawsuit succeeds, it will cost each patron a one-time payment of $360.70 per acre to cover the district’s attorney costs and settlements. Each patron will also see an annual fee increase of $36.26 per acre.
Horn said the group is now trying to organize an educational seminar for district patrons sometime within the next five to six weeks.
“It should only help the board. It should only help the manager. It should only help the district,” she said.
Information about the Westland Water Users, including the group’s research, is available online at www.westlandwaterusers.weebly.com.
The Westland Irrigation District will hold an election Tuesday, Nov. 14 for one position on the board of directors.
Incumbent Jack Bellinger is running against challenger Ray Vogt. Polling will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the district office, 77096 Highway 207, Echo. Registration to vote may be completed prior to the day of election or on election day prior to voting.
Voting provisions are in place for absentee landowners, multiple ownership of land and ownership by a corporation, trust or LLC. For more information, contact the Westland office at 541-667-2030.
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-966-0825.