Restoring the Deschutes River, preserving the Oregon spotted frog
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.