Deschutes River Conservancy
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.
Ten years ago, Susan Lucky Higdon created unique artwork for the Deschutes River Conservancy’s first RiverFeast event. Susan painted the Deschutes River view from a beautiful property owned by former DRC board member Dr. Ray Tien where the first RiverFeast was held. Since that first painting, Susan has been working with Deschutes River Conservancy every year to create stunning, exclusive artwork used as invitations for RiverFeast. Her personalized approach to the event is what makes RiverFeast special and has become an element of the brand over the last ten years.
RiverFeast was traditionally held at a property right on the river, and each year it was in a different location. Throughout the years, Susan has painted on the Middle Deschutes, Mirror Pond, the Crooked River, and the Metolius. She has also provided archived images that fit a certain theme, like Farm to Table in 2014.
Susan used an aerial shot of the middle Deschutes by Marisa Hossick, for 2016’s “Deschutes Serpentine” and she painted from the headwaters at Little Lava Lake creating “The Source”, for this year’s event. These last two paintings, at 30″ x 40″, are major works and are auctioned during the evening.
According to Susan, being the signature artist for RiverFeast for ten years has allowed her to work closely with Deschutes River Conservancy. “I really appreciate the artistic freedom they have given me. They’ve been very open to my ideas. Painting the Deschutes River is something I am passionate about. It’s been great to be part of a team working together for the river that we all want to preserve and respect.”
Thank you Susan!
DRC’s Program Manager, Natasha Bellis, presented on a water rights panel last week at the Northwest Land Camp with fellow flow restoration colleagues Caylin Barter of The Freshwater Trust and Lisa Pelly and Jacquelyn of Trout Unlimited. Land Camp, offered by Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts and Washington Association of Land Trust, brings together regionally diverse interests focused on land conservation for three days of workshops and networking. Participants were eager to learn about how the Deschutes River Conservancy and the Deschutes Land Trust interact and integrate their work in the Deschutes Partnership.
This winter has been a refreshing change from the recent past. Central Oregon’s snowpack is 138% of average. Skiers are ecstatic and irrigators look forward to plentiful water supplies this summer as the snowpack melts and releases water into our rivers and reservoirs.
Historically, Central Oregon sees these large snow events from time to time. People have compared this past winter with that of 1993 or even 1996. What’s important to note is that these huge snow events do not happen regularly and we can’t plan on them.
When we get a significant snowpack, it’s a gift from nature. Much of that water makes its way down through highly permeable volcanic landscape and into the groundwater system. This groundwater then bubbles up as springs that recharge the Deschutes River, contributing 80% of its flow in the lower reaches of the Deschutes.
This special groundwater connection is one of the primary reasons why the Deschutes River is considered so unique.
Kate Fitzpatrick presented to students in a Desert Watershed Management class at OSU Cascades today. Drawing on the successful partnerships and restoration successes in Whychus Creek, the group discussed how to innovate on these tools and partnerships to solve broader river restoration and water management issues. “It’s exciting to see the next generation of natural resource managers so engaged,” Kate exclaimed after finishing the guest lecture.