Deschutes River Conservancy
This week we are celebrating our longstanding partnership with Marc Thalacker and his 20th anniversary as Manager of the Three Sisters Irrigation District. Marc’s vision, will and determination were instrumental in the achievement of historic change for Whychus Creek and the district. In 1999, when Mid-Columbia Steelhead became ESA listed species, Marc assessed the threat and embraced an aggressive plan to restore Whychus Creek and protect his district. Marc worked closely with his board, patrons and stakeholders to pipe the district’s canal conserving and restoring 14.32 cfs (soon 1.16 more) to Whychus Creek while providing pressurized water to his patrons. The DRC has invested more than $10 million in the district’s canal piping over the past 6 years and the district will be fully piped by next year. As a result, Whychus Creek is one of the few places in Oregon where the state’s minimum streamflows have been achieved. Thank you Marc for our great partnership and wonderful success story.
Upper Deschutes River
The Basin Study Work Group is a basin wide collaborative working to restore flows in critical reaches such as the Upper Deschutes for the past 2 years. This year, the group is identifying the specifics of new water management solutions for the Upper Deschutes Basin. These include water conservation, water marketing, new storage options, and new ways to re-balance water between rivers, farms and cities. Bureau of Reclamation will model these solutions to help us understand how well they meet instream and out of stream needs under different climate change scenarios. This work will be complete spring of 2018. We are looking forward to then making large scale agreements that will guide the sustainable management and use of water moving into the future.
We are moving forward in our partnership with Ochoco Irrigation District to develop the McKay Creek Water Rights Switch. This project would restore natural flow to McKay Creek in exchange for providing landowners irrigation water rights from Ochoco Irrigation District. Increased flows will improve habitat and water quality for summer steelhead and redband trout, and will increase fish access to 37 miles of stream in McKay Creek.
Phase Eight of the Three Sisters Irrigation District Main Canal begins this winter. This phase will pipe another 4,400 feet and protect an additional 1 cfs instream. With the completion of Phase Eight, the project will include 8.27 miles of piped canal yielding 14.32 cubic feet per second (cfs) of conserved water–all of which is protected instream. This increase in streamflows will help meet minimum streamflow targets from April through October to improve conditions for reintroduced steelhead, Chinook salmon, and native redband trout from the diversion to the mouth of Whychus Creek.
We are here because we love the Deschutes River. Our local rivers give life to an otherwise arid, high desert climate. No matter who we are, we are all connected to the river, and therefore, to each other.
By working together with farmers, fisherman and urban communities, we have done great things.
Central Oregon’s rivers have seen some hopeful successes in 2016. We’d like to thank our partners, supporters and funders who have helped:
- Restore water back to the Middle Deschutes. Through your support of our Leasing Program, 2135 acres and 10,180 acre-feet of water were protected instream from April through October, with protected peak flows of up to 31.15 cfs from mid-May to mid-September.
- Increase Minimum Winter Flows in the Upper Deschutes. The Oregon Spotted Frog Settlement Agreement has ensured a permanent increase in winter flows raising the minimum from 20 cfs to 100 cfs. This is a first step toward further flow restoration we hope to accomplish through continued partnership and collaboration within the basin.
- Improve Conditions for Salmon and Steelhead in Whychus Creek. Increased flows through piping and partner-led habitat restoration work have improved summer flows for Salmon and Steelhead in Whychus Creek.
We want to sincerely thank all of you who have supported the Deschutes River this year. We need the river—and now, the river needs us. We pledge to work together to care for the river today and for generations to come!
Join us in continuing to restore the Deschutes River and its tributaries in 2017. By working together, we really can do great things!
From the Desk of the Executive Director, Tod Heisler
As we enter uncertain times, it is important for us to work together as a community. To keep calling for the protection of our beautiful places. To keep educating our children about the value of nature.
In my family, we have all pledged to do everything we can to protect the beautiful world we live in.
In the Deschutes Basin, we have been working to set aside our differences and find solutions for water conservation where we can all win – fish, families and farmers.
Though we’ve been successfully working at this for twenty years, today we need your help more than ever.
Restoration of the Upper Deschutes is our greatest undertaking and affects our entire region. We can’t do this without community support.
We need you to pledge your support to restoring the Deschutes River. We need you to pledge to do everything you can to conserve water and educate others.
Please join us in being a river supporter. The only way we will see healthy flows in the Upper Deschutes is by pulling together.
Together we can do great things!
Beginning this winter, the Deschutes River will flow at a minimum of 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) from September 16th to March 30th. The river community is celebrating the addition of this water to critically low winter flows that have dropped to as low as 20 cfs in past years.
“It’s unfortunate that these results were achieved through litigation,” said DRC Executive Director, Tod Heisler. “While this is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t solve the long-term flow issues that face the Deschutes River. We see this 100 cfs as a foundation for further flow restoration and we sincerely hope that additional flows can be restored through continued partnership and collaboration within the basin.”
This initial flow increase is the result of a recent settlement agreement in the Oregon spotted frog litigation involving WaterWatch, Center for Biological Diversity, Bureau of Reclamation and five local irrigation districts – Arnold, Central Oregon, Lone Pine, North Unit and Tumalo.
Irrigators have also agreed to leave 600 cfs instream in the Upper Deschutes River for the first half of April to support Oregon spotted frog breeding and habitat. Additionally, Crescent Creek will now flow at a minimum of 30 cfs and levels in Crane Prairie Reservoir will remain more stable to benefit existing frog populations living along the reservoir’s edge.
The settlement agreement will be in place through July 2017. After that time, additional agreements between the irrigation districts and the federal agencies are expected to continue to increase minimum winter flows in the future. The goal of the Deschutes River Conservancy is to protect a minimum of 300 cfs of winter flows in the Upper Deschutes, or ultimately enough water to restore a functioning upper Deschutes River.
A large scale basin study scheduled to conclude in 2018 will provide key information needed to create long-term cooperative solutions that will both restore the Deschutes and benefit water users for the future. Because climate change is increasingly impacting the timing and supply of water, we need to place great importance and care on how we manage and use water in Central Oregon.
The DRC believes there is enough water for all if we continue to manage this precious resource with forward thinking solutions.
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, streamflow 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, the Deschutes Basin Board of Control 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.”