Just as the air is a public resource that no one owns, and thus no one has a "right" to pollute the air, our waterways are also public resources that no one owns. There is no such thing as a "water right" pollute and degrade our rivers.
Since 1869 the Oregon Supreme Court has recognized that water is a public resource.
In 1918, Oregon became one of the first states to recognize recreation as commerce protected under the public navigation easement.
A law review published in Environmental Review concluded: "Although the state can authorize private rights in those resources (water), all private rights are subject to the state's sovereign ownership—a public easement—requiring the state to maintain these resources as trustee for the public."
Translation- the state has a legal obligation to protect our rivers on behalf of all citizens for fisheries, recreation, and other values.
Though economics is not a legal criterion for protecting the public's resources, keeping water in the river has a higher economic value to the region's economy than using that water for irrigation.
AG interests continuously inflate their economic value in order to garner support for subsidies. But in reality, AG provides minimal economic benefit to our region. For instance, according to Headwaters Economics, all agriculture (and irrigated AG is a subset of this) contributed to only 1.2% of the non-governmental income of Deschutes County, while Travel and Tourism accounted for 21.7% of income.
This figure does not account for the income of 43.2% of people who do not depend on the local economy for their income but who live or have moved to Deschutes County attracted by the natural environment including outdoor recreation.
Because none of the proposed solutions ever consider eliminating irrigated agriculture, they can never indeed "fix" the problem. We will still have unnatural flows in our rivers and less than a healthy aquatic ecosystem.
In the end, we need to restart discussions from the perspective that restoring and maintaining healthy river ecosystems is a higher priority than the private use of our water to irrigate fields of hay or pasture. Not only is this a wise ecological and economical pathway, but it is also an ethical pathway into the future.