Deschutes River Conservancy
By Jake Sahl
Contributing Writer for the Deschutes River Conservancy
When I finally got my head above water, I found myself in the quiet cave formed by our overturned raft. The world under here seemed calm, the roar of the river muffled. For a brief second I considered staying put. The illusion of safety was short lived, however, as I was sucked back underwater when we floated across another hole in the rapids. This time I popped up into sunlight to see my partner swimming for shore as hard as he could. I opted to do the same, managing to snag some rocks and roots just 20-feet upstream of the next Class 4 section. Gasping for breath, awed by the power of the Deschutes, I felt lucky to be alive.
What a dynamic river! Only the day before, I had been enjoying a lazy float on my inner tube a mere 3 miles downstream of the rapids from which I had just narrowly escaped. Even in the middle of a month of 90 degree weather, the water hovered around a frigid 50 degrees. It hadn’t rained in months, yet the flow levels in this reach had jumped from 1,900 to 2,100 cubic-feet-per-second (cfs) since yesterday. How do we explain these seeming contradictions? What makes the Deschutes River tick?
I have spent the better part of a decade studying and working to understand how river systems function and what humans can do to improve our relationship with these amazingly complex systems. As a hydrologist, I can’t help but ask myself what factors come together to give the Deschutes River its character.
Is it the geology of the area? The dominant force in Central Oregon is the volcanism that occurred over millennia as the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate slowly slid under the North American plate, literally melting as it went, before erupting back onto the surface as lava.
Maybe it has more to do with the climate? Lying in the rain shadow formed by the Cascade Range, much of the water in the Deschutes River originates as snowfall which either flows directly into the river or seeps into the porous ground, slowly making its way into the Deschutes via one of the many natural springs within the basin.
Or perhaps it comes down to thousands of years of increasing human impacts on the landscape? There are many large dams on the river and its tributaries which alter the timing and volume of downstream flows, allowing humans to bend the Deschutes to their industrial and agricultural needs.
As you probably know, the answer is that all of these forces together are responsible for creating the Deschutes River that we know today. Furthermore, all three are inextricably linked with one another.
So what makes the Deschutes River tick? Follow along in the coming months as I explore this question as a new Oregonian, novice boater, and aspiring fisherman.
About Jake Sahl:
Born and raised in California, Jake moved to Bend in early 2017. As a hydrologist, he is excited to absorb all the local knowledge of the Deschutes River system! Jake has a BS in Geohydrology from UC Santa Barbara and a MESM in Water Resources from the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. As a consultant, he strives to mitigate human impacts on the freshwater systems upon which we rely, and to restore natural function to highly-urbanized watersheds. Jake spends too much of his free time rock climbing, but also gets out boating and cycling whenever possible.
By Kyle Gorman, South Central Region Manager for Oregon Water Resources Department
As of today, the snowpack at the basin’s snow telemetered sites are reading 37% of average water content. We started off November with a spectacular snow pack and December has left us way behind. Although we can recover in January and February, it will take a lot of storms and moisture just to get back to normal or average. “It isn’t over til its over” but we really need some snow in the mountains right now….lots and lots of snow. The forecast for the mountains is only chance of snow for the next 7 days; that is not enough. Three Creeks SNOTEL is only 20% of average for water equivalent and this is the site that gauges snow pack for Whychus Creek. We need 6.3 inches of water equivalent to get the snowpack to average. The precipitation for the water year is 81 percent of average which is better but not where we want to be.
Bea was the DRC’s first Marketing and Communications Director and was promoted to the Director of Development and Communications in 2010. She built the Marketing and Communications Program from the ground up, developed and scaled the DRC’s brand and founded the DRC’s two signature fundraising events, the Tight Lines Auction and RiverFeast (now combined into one event).
An avid river rafter and fly fisher, Bea leaves a strong legacy of passion and dedication to raising awareness about the issues facing the Deschutes and its tributaries.
During her tenure, she was instrumental in the establishment of the Deschutes Partnership brand and raised millions of dollars to accomplish the DRC’s mission to restore streamflow and improve water quality in the Deschutes Basin.
We wish Bea the best of luck with her new adventures!
There is a saying in our office that “restoration does not happen at a 21st century pace.”
In an immediate world of instant messages, short cuts and quick fixes, we are accustomed to being able to solve problems right away. When a problem is as complex as solving the flow issues in the Upper Deschutes, the time line for solutions, by necessity, must follow its own pace.
Over the past 21 years, the Deschutes River Conservancy has successfully restored streamflow to Whychus Creek, the Middle Deschutes, Tumalo Creek and the Crooked River through building relationships, forging agreements and creating win-win solutions for basin stakeholders.
With the help of our partners, we are now on the eve of the greatest change we hope to accomplish in our basin: fixing the Upper Deschutes River. It is our responsibility as a community to leave the Deschutes Basin a better place than how we found it. In order to do that, we are changing the story of how we use water in Central Oregon.
The graphic below will show the large-scale and long-term restoration solutions for the Upper Deschutes. You will see how how, through the execution of a suite of innovative conservation measures, irrigators and their partners will create more water security for farmers and restore critically needed flows to the Deschutes River. These conservation measures include canal piping, water rights transactions, and reservoir management. The measures are designed to incentivize irrigators in urban areas to share water with farmers in Jefferson County so that these farmers are able to then share reservoir water with fish and wildlife in the Upper Deschutes.
By rethinking how we use and share water, we can and will have enough water for fish, farms and families.
For the past several dry to normal years, the Lava Island side channel has run completely dry, creating the urgent need for an annual fish salvage. This year however, despite water managers holding back flows as usual, the channel has not yet dried out.
Last winter’s amazing snowpack went a long way to replenishing a parched system in the Deschutes Basin. Snowpack acts as a reservoir, storing water until it melts off – and our porous volcanic geology acts like a giant sponge. This year, that sponge was wet. We saw this play out this year with the 2017 Fish Salvage in the Lava Island side channel upstream from Meadow Camp in the Upper Deschutes.
Every fall, flows in the Deschutes are held back in Wickiup Reservoir creating a dramatic reduction in flows, changing from a high of 2000 cubic feet per second to a low of 100 cubic feet per second. For the past several years, that decrease has been enough to cut off the Lava Island side channel, stranding thousands of fish and prompting local efforts to relocate fish to the mainstem of the Deschutes River.
“Moving the fish like this isn’t sustainable,” said Shon Rae, Assistant Manager of Central Oregon Irrigation District. “It’s a reactive response until we get more flow into the river.” Local irrigation districts have recently taken over the efforts to salvage fish populations stranded as a result of seasonal river management.
What does this mean for flows now? Just looking at the snowpack data from this year so far, you can see that precipitation is already five times above average creating a bounty of water in the system that is supplementing the low flows coming out of Wickiup Reservoir. For the moment, the river is getting a small reprieve.
Snowpack throughout the winter is hard to predict. Precipitation in the winter can start out strong, then several weeks of dry weather can turn that all on its head. Month to month, year to year snowpack is a constant variable. In a matter of weeks, snowpack can change shift from higher than average to below average. Balancing water management will help alleviate the effects of this unpredictability and also improve the stability of all water needs including the river. The way water is managed in Central Oregon is on the precipice of changing. Until then, we need to be prepared to rescue fish when needed.
Gen Hubert and Natasha Bellis from the DRC took a tour of the US Forest Service floodplain/habitat restoration project on Whychus Creek on Tuesday. This project is creating crucial habitat for the reintroduced steelhead and salmon on Whychus Creek. DRC’s flow restoration projects with partners such as Three Sisters Irrigation District goes hand in hand with the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council and US Forest Service’s habitat restoration projects and fish barrier removal, as well as conservation easements carried out by the Deschutes Land Trust, for the reintroduction to be successful.
In September, the City Club of Central Oregon announced four finalists for their newly minted “Conversation of the Year” award. This award will celebrate the conversations that benefit our community. A circulating trophy will be awarded this year to the individual, for-profit, non-profit or government entity in recognition of their participation in the conversation.
The Deschutes River Conservancy (DRC) was co-nominated for restoration work in and along Whychus Creek. Historically, the the creek that runs through Sisters, Oregon would run dry during the summer irrigation season. Through a collaborative effort with many local, state and federal partners, the DRC has been long been part of the conversation about Whychus Creek. Today, critical habitat for salmon and steelhead in Whychus Creek is on its way to recovery.
“We are honored to be nominated for this award,” said Tod Heisler, Executive Director of the Deschutes River Conservancy. “Restoring Whychus Creek has shown how great things can be accomplished when people create a common vision and work together to achieve it.”
The trophy, designed and sponsored by Schmid Malone Buchanan, LLC will be presented to the winner(s) tonight at Civic Drinks – the annual City Club member mixer on October 24th at Awbrey Glen.
DRC worked with several landowners to transfer 0.87 cfs of senior water rights off of developing lands at the edge of Sisters (2012 – 2016). The Whychus Creek irrigation diversion was a fish barrier and difficult to manage, the small ditch did not transport the water effectively and the landowner with the largest water right was no longer interested in farming.
When the water was submitted for transfer, the 30+ acre property was seeded with native and dryland grasses to deter weeds. A few years later the diversion structure was removed and the riparian area restored by UDWC.
DRC staff take a morning each year to walk the previously irrigated property and pull noxious weeds. Each year of weed-pulling nets fewer and fewer noxious weeds, though it’s very beneficial to continue pulling as seeds continue to blow in from neighboring properties.
A huge thank you to DRC’s Gen Hubert (left) for organizing this event each year!
The Deschutes River brings so much to our lives. It inspires our runs, walks and rides. Its powerful waters work hard to bring life to our region, but we can live in Bend for many years without knowing how the devastating fluctuations in flows are affecting our river.
For the past two years, the DRC has been engaged in the Upper Deschutes Basin Study designed to develop strategies to meet long-term water needs for our rivers, irrigators and cities.
Over the last two years, the study team has generated a large body of information on the tools available to do this. The Basin Study Work Group (BSWG), a diverse group of stakeholders, co-manages this study with the Bureau of Reclamation. This summer, the BSWG will develop water management scenarios that package tools to generate and move water around to meet needs. In the fall, the Bureau of Reclamation will run these scenarios through its water resources model to help us understand which scenario best meets needs, and the group will evaluate factors like cost and timeliness. The study will wrap up a year from now and will provide the foundation for a broadly-supported long-term plan that takes care of long-standing river issues and our communities.
The McKay Water Rights Switch will restore natural flow to the middle reach of McKay Creek by allowing landowners in this reach to trade their private McKay Creek water rights for Ochoco Irrigation District (OID) water rights, sourced from Prineville Reservoir. In exchange for more reliable OID water, McKay landowners will transfer all 11.2 cfs of certificated McKay Creek water rights instream. Restoring the natural hydrograph in this reach of McKay Creek will provide critical habitat for salmon and steelhead, support Crook County’s rural agricultural economy by providing more reliable agricultural water to irrigators, and help stabilize OID’s assessment base for future urbanization by adding patrons. The McKay Creek Water Rights Switch will also provide a great opportunity for the DRC to work with local partners (such as the Crooked River Watershed Council) to remove remaining fish passage barriers along the Creek and restore riparian habitat. The DRC is in the process of signing a MOU with OID and will begin local outreach efforts this summer.