Stand together for the Deschutes River

March 28th, 2016

MikeHollern8

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.

More information:

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


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