Category : Irrigation Districts
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.
Last night, the Coalition for the Deschutes and the Farmer’s Conservation Alliance (FCA) presented to an audience of about 50 people at the downtown branch of the Deschutes Public Library. FCA helped community members understand how modernizing irrigation practices in Central Oregon benefits farmers and local rivers, which ultimately benefits our community. FCA has considerable experience installing fish screens and modernizing irrigation districts in the Hood River area. They are enthusiastic about opportunities to partner with the Deschutes River Conservancy, Coalition for the Deschutes, local irrigation districts and other regional partners to help restore streamflow to the Deschutes River. This program was part of an ongoing series hosted by the Coalition for the Deschutes to raise awareness of the issues facing the Deschutes River. Learn more about these challenges and the collaborative solutions now being developed through the Basin Study Work Group.
Learn how one Culver-area ranch has reduced their water need
Ranch Facts at At a Glance
- 1989 to present
- 620 irrigated acres
- Hybrid carrot seed, Kentucky bluegrass seed, peppermint oil, wheat, alfalfa and grass hay
- 2 family operators, 2-3 full-time employees + seasonal labor
The Richard Family Story
Marty and Nancy Richards purchased 350 acres near Madras and began farming full time in 1989. Prior to that, they had lived and worked near Portland and grew hay and raised cattle in their spare time on a small 20 acre farm.
When they moved to Madras their three children (Gary, Katie and Kevin, ages 11, 9 and 6 at the time) contributed to the farm: picking rocks, changing irrigation and eventually operating equipment and taking on more responsibility. The three kids became active participants in 4-H and FFA, and Marty and Nancy became active volunteers, resulting in the family being awarded the Oregon State Fair Farm Family of the Year in 1994.
Currently, the Richards family grows hybrid carrot seed, Kentucky bluegrass seed, peppermint oil, wheat and hay on 620 irrigated acres. Their interest in sustainable practices has led them to implement technology such as drip irrigation, Scientific Irrigation Scheduling (SIS) and wireless irrigation monitoring to improve water use efficiency. Installing GPS systems on tractors has improved production efficiency and reduced fuel consumption. They also use no-till and minimum tillage practices in their crop rotation as frequently as possible and they’ve begun incorporating cover crops to improve soil health and reduce fertilizer and chemical use.
The family’s farming roots still run deep. Eldest son Gary moved with his wife and three girls to a home on the family farm so his children can experience farm life. Kevin, along with his wife and two sons, has purchased the property next door and moved back to Madras to farm full-time. Daughter Katie and her husband Brent live just over the mountain in Hillsboro, where she works for Intel.
(provided by the Richards Family)
Kevin Richards was recently honored with an Oregon Farm Bureau Top Hand Award during the 84th Oregon Farm Bureau Annual Meeting in Salem for his leadership on many critical ag issues at the county level and for his work to connect local students with agriculture.
Ranch Improvements and Benefits
The Richards family began making improvements on Fox Hollow Ranch in 1989, when they purchased the property, and continue today. These investments include: piping, ponds, improvements to soil, pumps, irrigation, and the modernization of equipment and practices.
These changes and investments have produced returns by reducing fertilizer, fuel and pesticide needs, while improving efficiencies and productivity. The sustainable practices utilized by Fox Hollow Ranch produce savings in water, energy, labor, and other inputs.
Annual water use per acre under current practices: 2 acre feet per acre
Contact Gen Hubert at the Deschutes River Conservancy for great ideas on how to use less water in your growing season.
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.
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.
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.”
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.