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As Oregon enforces its water use requirements, small farmers face the consequences

Christina del Campo co-runs Oak Song Farm near Eugene.
Nathan Wilk
Christina del Campo co-runs Oak Song Farm near Eugene. She learned last fall that she can't irrigate her commercial crops without a water right.

As Oregon more actively enforces state rules around water usage, some farmers have learned that they’ve been operating illegally for years.

Christina del Campo surveys her field, pointing out the garlic she hopes will grow on its own, and the blueberries she’ll no longer be able to sell.

“This section of the field, I don't know if I will even plant it,” she said. “I am potentially just going to put in a cover crop and build up the soil while I live in limbo and see what's gonna happen with water rights.”

This is Oak Song Farm, a property located off Lorane Highway near Eugene, with just over half an acre dedicated to agriculture.

For seven years, del Campo has used well water to grow vegetables here, which she’s sold at farmers markets and to her neighbors. She said that’s been her primary source of income.

“It's like a convenience store,” said del Campo. “People can stop in. I see a lot of people come on Sunday mornings to grab fixings for breakfast.”

However, everything changed last September. That’s when Oak Song Farm received a letter from the regional office of the Oregon Water Resources Department. It was a notification that the farm couldn’t irrigate its commercial crops without a water right.

Del Campo said this came as a complete surprise. Today, she said her business has been essentially destroyed.

“I don’t know why growing food is illegal,” she said. “That’s what doesn’t make sense to me.”

Nathan Wilk

Water is a publicly-owned resource in Oregon, meaning property owners need government approval for many of its uses.

“It’s a finite resource,” said Mike McCord, the Northwest Region Manager with the Oregon Water Resources Department. “The system of appropriation has been in place since 1909 in Oregon. It allows us to better manage the resource by having a permitting system.”

There are some exemptions, as those without a water right can use up to 5,000 gallons a day for commercial or industrial purposes. However, this doesn’t include irrigation, said McCord.

For del Campo, it's a frustrating double standard. She estimates she was using fewer than 1,000 gallons daily for agriculture.

“I'm not overusing water. I'm not overusing land,” said del Campo. “I'm just trying to have a small business and provide my community with food.”

The letter to Oak Song Farm was one of 24 sent in a batch last fall throughout District 2, which covers the Southern Willamette Valley. The department said some recipients later confirmed they were acting legally.

McCord said officials use aerial photography, complaints from neighbors, and in-the-field observation to find potential violations. He said new funding in 2021 allowed the state to hire more staff for enforcement.

However, he said the rules surrounding water rights haven’t significantly changed since Oak Song Farm opened.

“What I'd like people to hear is that before someone invests in something like this, they should do the diligence on it to know what [they] can and can't do, and what [they] may or may not need in order to do it," said McCord.

Advocates for small farms say the exemptions can be confusing, and there’s a lack of knowledge in the real estate community that can mislead new property owners.

“When you farm for other people, you just don't know all the business side of it,” said del Campo. “And so when I signed up for my business license, I would figure that that would be the time someone would tell me, ‘Hey, do you have water rights?”

Del Campo's mother, June, raises goats and chickens at Oak Song Farm.
Nathan Wilk
Oak Song Farm makes additional revenue by selling chicken eggs and goat milk.

Following the letter, del Campo has applied to pull and store water from a nearby creek, although she said she may not be able to afford the necessary infrastructure.

State officials say a typical application will likely take more than a year if it’s approved. Alice Morrison with Friends of Family Farmers said it’s increasingly uncommon that a water right will actually be given out.

“You've just spent thousands of dollars and waited 18 months to be told your business is shut down either way,” said Morrison.

In the meantime, del Campo can irrigate up to a half-acre for a non-commercial garden. She can also capture rainwater for commercial use, as that won't require a permit.

Another option is be adopt dry farming practices—using the moisture stored in the soil from the rainy season. But del Campo doesn't believe she has the space to do that effectively.

“The reality is that farmers in this position are going to have to drastically change their operation if they want to keep their doors open,” said Morrison. “And many of the solutions that are out there would take more than one season to implement and be very, very costly.”

Moving forward, Morrison said the state needs to create a system that’s equitable for small farmers.

“We are facing a water scarcity reality, said Morrison. “There are changes that need to be made to the system, but they end up having greater consequences for the smallest players in the food system.”

Del Campo said the state’s current approach is a threat to more businesses than just her own.

“It could shut down a lot of small farms,” said del Campo. “If you could just go to the farmers market and ask how many people had water rights, I would hate that to happen.”

The Oregon Water Resources Department is now proposing new rules designed to preserve groundwater, which McCord said may make it harder to obtain new water rights. A public comment period is open now.

Nathan Wilk joined the KLCC News Team in 2022. He is a graduate from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Born in Portland, Wilk began working in radio at a young age, serving as a DJ and public affairs host across Oregon.