Category : River News
By Kyle Gorman, South Central Region Manager for Oregon Water Resources Department
As of today, the snowpack at the basin’s snow telemetered sites are reading 37% of average water content. We started off November with a spectacular snow pack and December has left us way behind. Although we can recover in January and February, it will take a lot of storms and moisture just to get back to normal or average. “It isn’t over til its over” but we really need some snow in the mountains right now….lots and lots of snow. The forecast for the mountains is only chance of snow for the next 7 days; that is not enough. Three Creeks SNOTEL is only 20% of average for water equivalent and this is the site that gauges snow pack for Whychus Creek. We need 6.3 inches of water equivalent to get the snowpack to average. The precipitation for the water year is 81 percent of average which is better but not where we want to be.
There is a saying in our office that “restoration does not happen at a 21st century pace.”
In an immediate world of instant messages, short cuts and quick fixes, we are accustomed to being able to solve problems right away. When a problem is as complex as solving the flow issues in the Upper Deschutes, the time line for solutions, by necessity, must follow its own pace.
Over the past 21 years, the Deschutes River Conservancy has successfully restored streamflow to Whychus Creek, the Middle Deschutes, Tumalo Creek and the Crooked River through building relationships, forging agreements and creating win-win solutions for basin stakeholders.
With the help of our partners, we are now on the eve of the greatest change we hope to accomplish in our basin: fixing the Upper Deschutes River. It is our responsibility as a community to leave the Deschutes Basin a better place than how we found it. In order to do that, we are changing the story of how we use water in Central Oregon.
The graphic below will show the large-scale and long-term restoration solutions for the Upper Deschutes. You will see how how, through the execution of a suite of innovative conservation measures, irrigators and their partners will create more water security for farmers and restore critically needed flows to the Deschutes River. These conservation measures include canal piping, water rights transactions, and reservoir management. The measures are designed to incentivize irrigators in urban areas to share water with farmers in Jefferson County so that these farmers are able to then share reservoir water with fish and wildlife in the Upper Deschutes.
By rethinking how we use and share water, we can and will have enough water for fish, farms and families.
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.
This winter has been a refreshing change from the recent past. Central Oregon’s snowpack is 138% of average. Skiers are ecstatic and irrigators look forward to plentiful water supplies this summer as the snowpack melts and releases water into our rivers and reservoirs.
Historically, Central Oregon sees these large snow events from time to time. People have compared this past winter with that of 1993 or even 1996. What’s important to note is that these huge snow events do not happen regularly and we can’t plan on them.
When we get a significant snowpack, it’s a gift from nature. Much of that water makes its way down through highly permeable volcanic landscape and into the groundwater system. This groundwater then bubbles up as springs that recharge the Deschutes River, contributing 80% of its flow in the lower reaches of the Deschutes.
This special groundwater connection is one of the primary reasons why the Deschutes River is considered so unique.
Frogs and flows were the topic of conversation on Tuesday night for a packed house at McMenamins. The Coalition for the Deschutes hosted a community education program presented by Jason Gritzner of the US Forest Service and Jennifer O’Reilly of the US Department of Fish and Wildlife Services.
Jason Gritzner presented flow and riparian studies from the Upper Deschutes River that span the past 60 years starting from the completion of Crane Prairie and Wickiup Reservoirs. Prior to the construction of Wickiup Dam, flows in the spring-fed Deschutes River varied little between seasons and years. Historically, flows in the summer averaged 730 cubic feet per second (cfs) and dropped to an average of 660 cfs in the winter. Today flows fluctuate dramatically between an average of 1800 cfs in the summer and a minimum of 20 cfs in the winter storage season. This new flow pattern creates significant challenges for a river that was not built for fluctuations, including significant erosion that has resulted in a widening of the channel by about 20% and a straightening of the channel. This winter, as a part of the Oregon Spotted Frog Settlement, irrigators have agreed to increase minimum winter flows to 100 cfs.
Jennifer O’Reilly informed last night’s seminar attendees about the lifecycle, breeding needs and habitat requirements of the Oregon spotted frog. The frog was listed as a Threatened Species in 2014 under the Endangered Species Act. Environmental groups have filed litigation to restore flows in the Upper Deschutes to protect frog habitat. The fluctuations in streamflow resulting from irrigation fulfillment in the summer and storage in the winter have created a difficult environment for the frogs to thrive.
To conclude the evening, Jason Gritzner highlighted the connection between the plight of the Oregon spotted frog and the overall health of the river. Because amphibians are considered an environmental indicator species, a distressed population confirms distress in the overall ecosystem in the Upper Deschutes.
Want to learn more? There are more community leaning opportunities to come! Click to see the list and RSVP links.
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.
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.
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.