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Wrangling over water.

Byline: Winston Ross The Register-Guard

BANDON - Johnson Creek gurgles out of the hills on the southern Oregon Coast and snakes between Alder trees and cranberry bogs before finishing a short journey to the Pacific Ocean, a few miles from its source.

Johnson Creek's water - its "liquid gold," as area farmers put it - is captured in a couple of places along the way by a couple of small dams that cranberry growers tap into to irrigate their crops at harvest time. It's also valuable fish habitat, a cutthroat trout-bearing stream and a former spawning ground for fragile coho salmon populations. But most of the water dumps into the sea.

That's a waste, farmers say, and it's why a group of them want to build a 90-foot earthen dam on the creek, capable of capturing and storing as much as 1,500 acre feet of water, or 49 million gallons. But the proposed reservoir project is growing more expensive and more controversial by the day, dividing the growers themselves and pitting the region's burgeoning thirst against one couple's fear that their property will be condemned and flooded to benefit someone else's wallet.

Even some of the project's potential subscribers are backing away from the dam now, upset that what once was a relatively modest proposal to serve a select number of farmers now involves the city of Bandon and Michael Keiser, the owner of the Bandon Dunes golf resort.

They also don't like the prospect of a showdown between those powerful interests and the owners of upstream property, which could lead to the government's taking of valuable timberland via eminent domain - a phrase that some property owners say makes them nauseous.

"Initially, I was for it," said Mike Schaer, who has been harvesting cranberries on a small farm south of town since 2006. "But this was supposed to be a group of farmers who want to build a reservoir for themselves, not for the city of Bandon or the Bandon Dunes. And I'm definitely against the taking of property for any reason."

Cranberry growers, who constitute one of Bandon's most important industries, have been itching for a bigger water supply for decades, after watching the number of acres in production triple, from 900 acres in 1971 to nearly 3,000 today.

But after they first started eyeing Johnson Creek in the early 1990s, the growers got smacked by an oversupply in the cranberry market, which drove down prices and made farming a tough trade, at least from 1999 to 2004.

Hurting for cash, the farmers tried new varieties of cranberries with higher yields. To be productive, however, those varieties needed more water. To get more water, the growers needed a dam. To get a dam, they needed millions of dollars that they didn't have.

"It's a chicken and egg question," said Paul Bauge, manager of the Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc. receiving station in Bandon, where most farmers sell their harvest. "All we want to do is build a storage facility and capture some of the waste, in billions of cubic feet, that goes out to sea."

Enter the city of Bandon and Keiser. Searching for startup capital, some of the growers approached the city, which owns water rights on nearby creeks, but with only enough privileges to keep this booming community's growing thirst quenched until 2023.

Then the farmers went to Keiser, who just completed his third water-hungry 18-hole golf course at the wildly popular Bandon Dunes and is mulling the idea of a municipal course with lower greens fees that could make the sport more accessible to locals.

Both Keiser and the city, which has a population of 3,000, were happy to buy in, to the tune of 200 acre feet of water apiece; the city later upped its share to 300 acre feet.

Before long, the dam wasn't just a project for cranberry growers, farmer Jeff Haga says. What was originally envisioned as a 30-foot-tall dam had ballooned into a 90-foot dam. What was originally going to cost $4 million now may cost at least $10 million. What originally would have threatened no one's private property now could mean the flooding of 100 of Liz French's 160 acres, whether she agrees to sell it or not.

"I was raised on that land," French said. "My family bought that land in 1958. It's my land. I don't want another piece of land. This is the family ranch." All for a project that's not necessary, argues Scott Cook, French's boyfriend and a vocal opponent of the project.

The growers acknowledge that they have yet to suffer from a lack of water in their bogs. They simply wait to harvest until the autumn rain begins, anywhere from September to November.

But they'd like to use water from the dam to harvest sooner, so they can farm the more profitable crop.

This is a bogus reason to take French's property via eminent domain, Cook argues. And the city and the golf course should look elsewhere to their future needs rather than turn to condemning private property, he said.

"If they want to get water, drill a well," said Cook, who plans with French to retire using revenue from sustainable timber harvests. "Our land is not for sale."

Some farmers who once supported the project now oppose it chiefly because they oppose the principal of eminent domain, Haga said.

"I'm worried about the precedent," he said. "Plus, I'm a conventional farmer and I do use chemicals. If they're pulling water right from my farm and using it for drinking water, that's not a good thing."

But the farmers in favor of the dam say they don't understand the controversy. For one thing, the project still needs a fish passage waiver from the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, one that will be granted only if the dam's proponents can show that they will create new habitat on other waterways to mitigate the impacts a dam will have on the fish that spawn in Johnson Creek.

Any talk of buying or condemning French's property is a ways off, the proponents say, and they remain optimistic that a deal can be worked out in the meantime.

"I've never heard anyone talk about condemnation, eminent domain or anything like that," said Bob Johnson, Keiser's real estate broker.

Bauge added: "Eminent domain has got nothing to do with anything. I truly believe this thing can be done peacefully, and in a friendly way."

As for the need, the farmers who want a dam say it's impossible to expand their investments without new sources of water. They also say some of the farmers who are opposed to the project are stealing water from the creek now. A dam would mean water usage is metered and tracked, which is one of the reasons the farmers wanted the dam in the first place, some of them said, to legitimize their currently illegal usage of area water.

"I was one of the ones pumping illegally out of Johnson Creek," said Wayne Scherer, chairman of the Bandon Cranberry Water Control District. Scherer solved his problem by helping pay for a smaller reservoir nearby. But it wasn't built large enough to accommodate the farmers who want to build a bigger dam now on Johnson Creek, he said.

The city signed on to the project - and is willing to fork over the minimum $2 million cost for its share of the water - because of a need for long-term planning, Bandon City Manager Matt Winkel said.

"There's virtually no groundwater around, but for a few very small domestic wells. We're restricted to surface water," Winkel said, and, since the state is reticent to grant new water rights on Oregon creeks, options for tapping that resource are slim.

"I don't think anybody can have too much water," he said. "Especially in a community that has burned down two times water is critical." (In 1914 and 1936, major fires destroyed much of Bandon.)

Keiser's interest was pure economic development at first, Johnson said, to "support the city and the local economy. We know the value of water."

Since then, Keiser has been considering the additional golf development, Johnson said, which would require more water. If golfing doesn't suck up all the water Keiser buys, he may look to trade or sell it, Johnson added. "Water is a commodity," he said.

"It can be bought and exchanged."
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Title Annotation:General News; Cranberry farmers see a small idea to dam a creek grow into a project that may end in a showdown
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 10, 2007
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