Deschutes River Conservancy
Community members gathered in waders, boots and rain jackets at Lava Island Falls last week to rescue thousands of fish in what’s becoming an annual event. Each fall, streamflows in the Upper Deschutes from Wickiup Reservoir to Bend are reduced in order to refill reservoirs for the following irrigation season. This drop in flows cuts off water from a side channel of the Deschutes, leaving fish high and dry.
This year 3,941 Rainbow Trout, Whitefish and Brown Trout were rescued over 3 days and relocated back to the main stem of the Deschutes. We are so grateful to community volunteers, the Coalition for the Deschutes, Trout Unlimited, Central Oregon Irrigation District and the Trout Bus for your hard work and dedication to the health of the Deschutes River.
“While there is value in everyone working together to rescue stranded fish, the salvage is a symptom of a bigger challenge of how to manage the Deschutes River to effectively meet the needs of fish, farms and families,” said Mike Britton, executive director of the DBBC. “Central Oregon’s irrigation districts — along with numerous other stakeholders — are working toward innovative water management solutions that will ensure we maintain adequate year-round streamflows in the Deschutes River while addressing our region’s economic, agricultural, environmental and recreational interests.”
We look forward to sharing news of specific steps being taken to restore winter flows through more sustainable water management agreements in the future.
Tuesday, April 12 at 7:00pm
This programming is sponsored by:
Brooks Resources, Deschutes Brewery, Deschutes River Conservancy, Bend Broadband, Old Mill District, ASCOCC and OSU-Cascades Student Fee Committee.
Perspective on U.S. District Court hearing on the Oregon spotted frog litigation from DRC Executive Director, Tod Heisler
As I scanned the overflowing courtroom for an empty seat at last Tuesday’s Oregon spotted frog hearing, I encountered Richard Macy, a North Unit Irrigation District board member and former member of my board.
Richard asked me, “Tod, are you sitting on the bride’s side or the groom’s side?” I laughed and said that I always have to sit in the middle. This is the nature of my work at the Deschutes River Conservancy. I walk down the center aisle, imploring people on both sides to work together.
At the Deschutes River Conservancy, our mission is simple and clear: to restore streamflow and improve water quality in the Deschutes Basin. But the manner in which we accomplish this mission is not so simple. We strive to forge a consensus among various and competing interests to advance the mission. We believe that solutions developed this way will be the most effective and longest lasting.
When I look at an underlying objective of the lawsuit filed by environmental groups to restore winter flows in the Upper Deschutes River, I agree with the objective. It is our mission. But what is clear to my organization is also clear to U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and others — solutions to complex water management problems need to be worked out collaboratively.
Judge Aiken made a wise decision last week. Rather than immediately cutting off water to hundreds of commercial farmers, she concluded that the collaborative processes underway in the Deschutes Basin need to be given time to resolve water management disputes in a manner that is not “all or nothing.” Judge Aiken was quick to point out that it takes a long time to build trusting relationshipsand that protecting these relationships is very important when solving emotional and potentially divisive problems.
I applaud this decision but acknowledge that we have a lot of heavy lifting in front of us. The Upper Deschutes River continues to degrade at a rapid rate.Basin stakeholders need to accelerate their collaborative work to set a rational course for restoring the Upper Deschutes River in a manner that supports the region’s farmers and growing cities.
The cooperation needed to make this work is not only between agricultural and environmental interests; it is between irrigation districts, too. This interdistrict cooperation will unlock the opportunities to make real progress in the river in a reasonable timeframe and cost.
Over the past 10 years, I have said that there is plenty of water to meet all the needs in our basin. We have an issue of distribution rather than true scarcity. But to tap this potential water supply, we need to develop a new mindset and culture of water conservation.
Water is precious. Let us treat it as such. We can improve century-old infrastructure and water management practices with great results for districts and rivers.
I hope that last Tuesday’s hearing serves as a wake-up call for us all. Let’s get serious about fixing the problems in the Upper Deschutes River and do it in a manner that respects the needs and interests of farmers and urban communities.
But let’s not dawdle, as the challenges are not getting any easier. The Upper Deschutes River needs all of our help. Let’s bring the river back to a place where it can function rather than unravel, where the various life forms that depend upon it can thrive rather than just survive.
Today, it is a spotted frog. Tomorrow, it could be a fish or salamander or sedge or snake. Let’s get it done together.
Groups seek settlement talks in Oregon spotted frog case, The Bulletin
No immediate change to Deschutes Water use, The Bulletin
Judge to consider Deschutes River injunction in spotted frog lawsuit, The Bulletin
Frog lawsuit could change Deschutes River flows, The Bulletin
What you need to know about the Deschutes, Deschutes River Conservancy
Letter: Central Oregon Irrigation District works to conserve, The Bulletin
Letter: It’s time to save the Upper Deschutes, The Bulletin
Editorial: All-or-nothing lawsuits not the answer for Deschutes, The Bulletin
A river used to run through it, The Source Weekly
Guest Commentary – Just Add Water, The Source Weekly
The Deschutes River needs our help.
The Deschutes River, though beautiful, has some very serious problems. In many years, flows in the Deschutes below the reservoir can drop by as much as 98% from summer to winter. When this happens, fish and wildlife habitat dries up.
What caused this problem?
In the winter, irrigation districts store water in Wickiup and Crane Prairie Reservoirs for the following irrigation season. Without the water stored in Wickiup, farmers in Madras and Culver would not be able to water their crops in the summer and would be unable to make a living. These farmers have lived with uncertain water supplies for decades and have already fine-tuned their watering practices to be very efficient.
How do we solve the problem?
We can solve the problem by finding a better way to manage our water. 100-year old leaking canals and outdated irrigation practices make it difficult to move and use water efficiently in some areas. Updating these systems and improving these practices will conserve enough water to meet everyone’s needs, including the river.
Our region is currently in the middle of a basin-wide process to study the problem and to develop solutions. This $1.5 million basin study will provide the information needed to create voluntary, community-based solutions that are effective and lasting.
I heard something about a lawsuit.
In 2014, the federal government listed the Oregon spotted frog as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.The frog joined steelhead and bull trout as a listed species in the upper Deschutes Basin. Since 2008, local irrigation districts have been working on a plan to minimize their impacts on these species.
Eight years into the planning process, two environmental groups wanted more immediate action. They sued the owners and operators of the reservoirs to change how the rise and fall of river levels were affecting the Oregon spotted frog.
On March 22, the parties to the lawsuit will appear in court to argue over a request to immediately change Deschutes River management. This immediate change would reduce water supplies for local farmers because updating leaky canals and improving irrigation practices will take time and money.
We face a dilemma – how to take the urgent measures needed to protect the threatened frog right away without devastating water supplies for farming families who must be engaged in the long-term solution. Ultimately, we need to restore a functioning Deschutes River in a manner that meets environmental AND agricultural needs. Community-based solutions provide the greatest opportunity to resolve that dilemma and restore the river.
Let me paint a picture of the summer of 1977 in Sisters, Oregon. The population was less than 700 people, many of whom were farmers. A drought had devastated the snowpack in the Cascades, leaving almost no water in Whychus Creek.
What little water flowing in the creek was diverted to fulfill only 10% of the expected water for farmers. That summer, the creek ran dry through the City of Sisters.It was a disaster for fish and a disaster for farming families.
Fast forward 38 years to 2015. Another severe drought hit Central Oregon and much of the West. Snowpack in the Cascades was only a fraction of normal. Mountains were bare. Glaciers were melting.
But what happened in Whychus Creek last year?
“We were able to maintain a daily average flow of 20 cfs in Whychus Creek while delivering 20-40% of expected water to farmers,” said Marc Thalacker, District Manager, Three Sisters Irrigation District. “This was in addition to generatingclean green renewable power and conserving energy.”
Thanks to the forward-thinking water conservation projects that Three Sisters Irrigation District has completed with partners like the Deschutes River Conservancy, last year’s drought was a very different experience.
“Cooperation and collaboration by a wide variety of partner stakeholders made it possible for us to help fish and farmers while reducing Oregon’s carbon footprint.”
The current water report from Oregon Water Resources Department Region Manager, Kyle Gorman
The Water Year so far has been a remarkable improvement from last year. Although, the reservoirs are still showing some lingering effects of the incredibly low snowpack and very warm, dry summer we had, there is hope and anticipation for improvement this year. The snowpack (snow water equivalent in the snow) is at 117%. Last year at this time it was an abysmal 33% of average and on its way to being the worst snowpack on record since automated records began in the early 1980’s. Most notably as a bonus this year is that we have a lot of lower elevation snow that we haven’t had since 2012. This is a large source of recharge and run-off for the basin streams that is not captured in the SNOTEL sites because of their high elevation. The forecast is calling for cool, wet weather for the coming week, which is more good news for water supply.
Better precipitation this year has taken the edge off the drought but we are not out of the woods yet. The winter water storage season started with reservoirs at substantially lower levels than they have been in years and the need for conservation is still very real and is always present.
We are well underway with a basin study that will address water supply issues, climate change, opportunities for irrigation efficiencies, and develop a range of options to meet future water needs. The study will help meet the needs of streams, farms and cities, particularly in times of shortages much like we experienced last year.
We all know that rivers need water. Here, in the Deschutes Basin, we are fortunate to have an abundant supply of water from an extraordinary spring-fed river, but today the use of that water is a topic of intense discussion. The current use of Deschutes River water is based on a system set up over a century ago to provide water for agriculture. Public demands for water have expanded since then to include growing cities, recreation and ecological health. We must now find a way to sustain century-old irrigated agriculture while providing for important new economic uses of water as well.
Every winter, irrigation districts store water in Wickiup, Crane Prairie and Crescent Lake Reservoirs for irrigation during the following summer. This stored water augments natural summer flow in the Deschutes River primarily to support Jefferson County farmers, holders of junior water rights, every year. The stored water also provides important insurance for other local irrigators in years of drought. While this water allocation allowed for the successful establishment of agriculture during the 20th century, it did not fully account for the associated ecological impacts to the river.
In many years, the flows coming out of Wickiup Reservoir decrease by over 98% from summer to winter, from as much as 1,800 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the summer to as low as 20 cfs in the winter. You only need to take a walk along the Deschutes River upstream from Bend after mid-October to see first-hand the effects these reduced flows have on the river’s floodplains, stream banks, vegetation and fish habitat.
Assessments of public opinion in recent years indicate that maintaining a healthy river while meeting the water needs of farmers and cities is now a high priority for Central Oregonians. We need new creative water management strategies to meet this challenge.
In response, basin partners are looking into new ways to meet water needs for rivers, agriculture and communities over the next 50 years. While much progress has been made through aggressive conservation efforts by irrigation districts to restore flows in Whychus Creek, Tumalo Creek, Middle Deschutes, and the Lower Crooked Rivers, progress in the Upper Deschutes lags behind and will require a greater effort. To that effect, a $1.5 million Basin Study is underway to provide needed information on restoration options. The collaborative Basin Study Work Group involves all of the diverse, and sometimes conflicting, water interests in the Deschutes Basin voluntarily working toward a modern water management plan.
The Basin Study coincides with a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) started in 2008 by the irrigation districts and City of Prineville to address the impact of water management on fish and wildlife.
In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Oregon spotted frog as a threatened species under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). A number of factors have contributed to the decline of the species throughout its range over the past 50 years. In the Upper Deschutes Basin, the altered flow regime has been identified as one of those contributing factors. This puts additional pressure on water users and resource planners to find alternatives to the current allocation of Deschutes River water.
Impatient with the timeline of the HCP process, two environmental groups recently filed 60-day notices of intent to sue the Bureau of Reclamation for violation of the ESA with respect to the Oregon spotted frog. In addition, one of the notices named the irrigation districts that manage the seasonal storage of water in the reservoirs. These potential lawsuits cite the need for immediate actions as well as longer-term solutions.
The pending litigation against the two member groups of the Basin Study Work Group places challenges on the collaborative process. Finding the most cost-effective short-term solutions to flow issues while evaluating longer-term, more expensive flow restoration solutions is the core mission of the Basin Study. Possible legal actions have the potential to constrain the open brainstorming that is central to developing creative and collaborative water management solutions.
Despite these challenges, we will continue to work together with our partners to stay the course with collaborative planning under the Basin Study. Ultimately, these efforts will show us the best way to restore a healthy river and meet the needs of the the fish, wildlife and communities that depend upon it.
July was hot; the hottest month on record according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Combine that with an unusually warm winter, dismally low snowpack and drought declaration in 90% of Oregon and you get some pretty unhappy conditions for fish and other river dwellers.
Native fish such as trout and salmon thrive in river temperatures below 60°F, but as water warms and oxygen levels decrease, fish become stressed. An increase to 68°F and above can turn a river lethal for most native fish.
Sadly, thousands of fish died around Oregon this summer as a result of the low flows, warm water and increased levels of temperature related diseases. We hope the weather conditions we experienced this summer will give way to more normal patterns, but we do have to acknowledge the likelihood of more droughts in the future.
The good news is that here in the Deschutes Basin, many of our streams are spring fed and don’t tend to get as warm as other streams in Oregon. While flows in the Deschutes River below Bend can approach unhealthy temperatures, colder snow-melt tributaries such as Tumalo and Whychus Creeks help cool flows and preserve a healthier habitat.
With our partners, we are now underway with the Upper Deschutes Basin Study which will design the next generation of water management projects to restore flows in the Deschutes River help modernize century old water management practices that are no longer sustainable for today’s diverse needs.
We all have an interest in maintaining healthy rivers. We are all working together to create a sustainable water plan in the Deschutes Basin for tomorrow and for generations to come. Support this important process by getting informed and sharing information with others.
Read more at www.deschutesriver.org.
Here in the Deschutes Basin, our situation is serious, but not as grim as in some places. We benefit from a combination of water supplies. Groundwater, snowpack and stored flows from reservoirs all contribute to our rivers and streams.
Despite our reliable water supply, when drought extends for more than one year, even these resources are impacted.
The flow issues in the Deschutes Basin are complex. In many regards, the area’s economy was originally based upon water usage practices that were established long before we fully understood the natural limitations of the watershed.
We are confident there will be enough water for everyone’s needs, provided we are willing to manage these resources differently. With a better understanding of our natural limitations, we’ve made progress to protect flows.
Commercial and non-commercial irrigators, for example, are the largest water users in the basin. They have contributed the most to restoring streams through large scale water conservation projects, but they still have the greatest opportunity to conserve more.
Simply increasing irrigation efficiency and optimizing water delivery systems could produce the water needed to restore critical flows in the Deschutes River.
Making these changes will take time and money, and should not be the sole responsibility of the irrigation community.
Healthy rivers are the responsibility of our entire region, and they are the legacy we leave behind.
Whychus Creek will flow this summer, revealing both promise and a challenge.
For nearly 20 years, the DRC has partnered with local water interests to collaboratively restore flows in our rivers and streams. This approach has allowed the partial restoration of critical instream flows.
The flow issues existing in the upper Deschutes Rivers, Crooked River and others are more complex. The next phase of the restoration work will be on a much larger scale and will require basin-wide changes in water management.
Over the past two years, the DRC has helped to lead the Basin Study Work Group (BSWG) which is focused upon the long-term water needs of agriculture, municipalities, wildlife, recreation and other interests in the Upper Deschutes Basin.
On April 7th, the BSWG approved a 2 1/2 year plan to implement the Basin Study. The study will begin this summer. It will assess projected water supply and demand for the basin, risks to water supply resulting from climate change, opportunities to increase efficiencies in existing infrastructure, and strategies to meet future water demands.
We are confident there will be enough water for all needs of the basin provided that we’re willing to manage water differently.