Category : River News
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.”
July was hot; the hottest month on record according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Combine that with an unusually warm winter, dismally low snowpack and drought declaration in 90% of Oregon and you get some pretty unhappy conditions for fish and other river dwellers.
Native fish such as trout and salmon thrive in river temperatures below 60°F, but as water warms and oxygen levels decrease, fish become stressed. An increase to 68°F and above can turn a river lethal for most native fish.
Sadly, thousands of fish died around Oregon this summer as a result of the low flows, warm water and increased levels of temperature related diseases. We hope the weather conditions we experienced this summer will give way to more normal patterns, but we do have to acknowledge the likelihood of more droughts in the future.
The good news is that here in the Deschutes Basin, many of our streams are spring fed and don’t tend to get as warm as other streams in Oregon. While flows in the Deschutes River below Bend can approach unhealthy temperatures, colder snow-melt tributaries such as Tumalo and Whychus Creeks help cool flows and preserve a healthier habitat.
With our partners, we are now underway with the Upper Deschutes Basin Study which will design the next generation of water management projects to restore flows in the Deschutes River help modernize century old water management practices that are no longer sustainable for today’s diverse needs.
We all have an interest in maintaining healthy rivers. We are all working together to create a sustainable water plan in the Deschutes Basin for tomorrow and for generations to come. Support this important process by getting informed and sharing information with others.
Read more at www.deschutesriver.org.
Here in the Deschutes Basin, our situation is serious, but not as grim as in some places. We benefit from a combination of water supplies. Groundwater, snowpack and stored flows from reservoirs all contribute to our rivers and streams.
Despite our reliable water supply, when drought extends for more than one year, even these resources are impacted.
The flow issues in the Deschutes Basin are complex. In many regards, the area’s economy was originally based upon water usage practices that were established long before we fully understood the natural limitations of the watershed.
We are confident there will be enough water for everyone’s needs, provided we are willing to manage these resources differently. With a better understanding of our natural limitations, we’ve made progress to protect flows.
Commercial and non-commercial irrigators, for example, are the largest water users in the basin. They have contributed the most to restoring streams through large scale water conservation projects, but they still have the greatest opportunity to conserve more.
Simply increasing irrigation efficiency and optimizing water delivery systems could produce the water needed to restore critical flows in the Deschutes River.
Making these changes will take time and money, and should not be the sole responsibility of the irrigation community.
Healthy rivers are the responsibility of our entire region, and they are the legacy we leave behind.
Whychus Creek will flow this summer, revealing both promise and a challenge.
For nearly 20 years, the DRC has partnered with local water interests to collaboratively restore flows in our rivers and streams. This approach has allowed the partial restoration of critical instream flows.
The flow issues existing in the upper Deschutes Rivers, Crooked River and others are more complex. The next phase of the restoration work will be on a much larger scale and will require basin-wide changes in water management.
Over the past two years, the DRC has helped to lead the Basin Study Work Group (BSWG) which is focused upon the long-term water needs of agriculture, municipalities, wildlife, recreation and other interests in the Upper Deschutes Basin.
On April 7th, the BSWG approved a 2 1/2 year plan to implement the Basin Study. The study will begin this summer. It will assess projected water supply and demand for the basin, risks to water supply resulting from climate change, opportunities to increase efficiencies in existing infrastructure, and strategies to meet future water demands.
We are confident there will be enough water for all needs of the basin provided that we’re willing to manage water differently.
Whychus Creek depends entirely on snowmelt for streamflow. With historically low snowpack in the Cascades this winter, water is in very short supply. State water and emergency managers have recommended a drought declaration for Deschutes County, where Whychus Creek is situated; farmers in the area are currently receiving only 30% of their normal allocations.
In previous drought summers, Whychus Creek has run dry. But this year, thanks to the efforts of water managers and recent conservation projects, flows in the creek are expected to remain at about 20 cubic feet per second.
Crook County also declared drought, resulting in reduced deliveries for farmers who rely on the Crooked River. However, the Prineville and Ochoco Reservoirs help buffer the effects of drought.
Spring is finally here, but what an unusual winter! Unseasonably warm temperatures resulted in very little snowpack and an average amount of precipitation that allowed reservoirs to fill in the Upper Deschutes Basin ahead of schedule.
What can we expect to happen with the river this year as a result? According to Kyle Gorman, Oregon Water Resource Department Region Manager, the flows in the Deschutes should be relatively normal this summer, but will depend on stored water to a greater extent than in a normal year where snowmelt provides much of the water supply during the late spring and early summer.
If the remainder of the winter and early spring continue to produce minimal snow followed by scant summer rainfall, levels in the reservoirs are likely to be lower after the irrigation season than in recent years.
That’s likely to create more pressure to fill them next winter. When flows in the Deschutes are held back for the winter to replenish the reservoirs it creates a potential for a significant impact on fish and wildlife in the fall.
Tumalo and Whychus Creeks are entirely dependent on snowmelt, so we will see lower than normal flows in both of these reaches as the irrigation season unfolds. But thanks to a number of conservation projects and several key instream leases, flows should hold around 10 cfs in Tumalo Creek and 20 cfs in Whychus.
On a positive note, Ochoco Reservoir is in better shape than it was at this time last year, giving a more positive outlook for water supplies instream in Ochoco Creek and on farms in the Crooked River Basin.
According to Brett Hodgson of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, weather driven variability in streamflows is a natural phenomenon to which trout in this area have been able to adapt. Consecutive dry years and seasonal flow management for irrigation are both factors that tend to have greater long-term impacts on fish and wildlife.
Prineville Reservoir is the wild card. If the reservoir doesn’t fill, this could affect the amount of stored water available to improve flows for fish and other wildlife, pursuant to recent legislation.
While officials say water supplies are fairly decent this year, we should still conserve water where we can. The big question is: what will happen next winter? If next winter brings very little precipitation, we could see very low water supplies, and that has the potential to dramatically impact the health of our rivers and streams.
One thing to remember is that variations in snowfall and overall precipitation in the Deschutes River Basin can vary dramatically. In the past decade, we’ve seen some great years – and a year like this.
What can we do? Deschutes River Conservancy is working collaboratively with all who have an interest in the river – communities, farmers and irrigation districts, fishermen, boaters and more – to ensure the health of the river and its unique ecosystems. Together we are identifying long-term solutions to ensure healthy ecosystems and economic benefits, regardless of the weather.
Talk a little about your guiding business.
I started Deep Canyon Outfitters in 2009 after working with another outfitter for 4 years, and before that, yet another outfitter for 3 years. In total I have 13 years experience guiding fly fishing trips in Central Oregon. While the majority of our clients come to wade the famous waters of the Lower Deschutes, we offer guided trips on the Fall River, Crooked River, Upper Deschutes, and the Cascade Lakes. In 2013, we took 1300 guests fishing, hailing from around the country… if they were experienced anglers, they came to fish the Deschutes River. In 2014, I’m projecting to take 1500+ guests fishing. We have 7 full time guides and 4 part time guides on staff. The health of the river is not just important for me, but for everyone who works for Deep Canyon Outfitters.
Why is the Deschutes River important to you? Why do you care?
The river has many layers of importance for me… for my business – it is imperative for the ecology to be healthy and for the river to support the reputation as the greatest fishery in Oregon. Without a healthy river, the trout and steelhead my clients want to catch would not exist. Without trout and steelhead, Deep Canyon Outfitters may not exist. Without Deep Canyon Outfitters, my staff would not be able to support their families and values. Without my staff, I would not be able to function as a business owner, a resident of Bend, and a caretaker of the Deschutes River.
On a personal level – for me the river is important because it is my home. I learned to fly fish on the famous rivers of Montana, but I developed the lifelong passion for the sport, the fish, and the connection with nature on the Deschutes River. I eat, sleep, and walk its banks over 125 days a year.
There are few rocks, trees, and fish on the Deschutes that I’ve not met. Protecting the resource that I rely upon for sport, spiritual connection, relaxation, and commerce seems natural.
Why are you part of the Deschutes River Conservancy?
I’ve been a DRC board member for the past 8 years and in that time I’ve seen dramatic changes to the river – much higher flows, better ecology for the fish, and reintroduction of salmon and steelhead in the upper basin. None of this would have happened without the work of the Deschutes River Conservancy.
The collaborative process employed by the DRC is, in my estimation, the only option for meeting the needs of every water user in the basin. While I see the importance of more water in the river for fish, I can empathize with other users and understand their water needs to support their way of life. If we don’t work together we all lose.
Why is it important to restore flows in the Upper Deschutes?
The Upper Deschutes river was historically a more productive fishery than the famous Lower Deschutes river. In the late ’70’s and early ’80’s the Upper Deschutes was heralded as the best fishery in Oregon. Restoring flows in the upper basin would return this fishery to its potential. Even small additions of water will have a huge impact – riparian zones will be kept intact during the winter months protecting both habitat and valuable food sources. The economic potential is vast – little to no commercial fishing is done below Wickiup dam today, but a productive fishery coupled with demand for fishing from the boat and close access from Bend would bolster the Upper Deschutes’ economic importance. If the fishing were better in the Upper Deschutes, Deep Canyon Outfitters would have many guests fishing up there, enjoying the scenery and the fish.
What benefits do you see in the river when there are higher flows and lower water temperatures?
Over the past 10 years of fishing the Middle Deschutes River I’ve seen the impact of higher flows and cooler water. The vegetation in the riparian area is fuller. Although this can make angling and casting a challenge, the positive is that the trout populations seem to be more robust, and the insect hatches are extremely prolific. No longer do I steer clear of the Middle D in the summer months. The fishing from late June through early September is much more productive than the days of low flows.
In your view, what is the best possible outcome of the flow restoration process for the Deschutes Basin?
For me and my way of life, the best possible outcome is to increase flows below Wickiup dam to a minimum of 250 cfs from mid October to mid April and recreate a Blue Ribbon fishery near Bend. What I like most about the DRC’s approach is that the goal is not just to restore flows in any one section of the Deschutes basin, but to work with all the stakeholders to create the most efficient water management system. In my mind, without all aspects of water use being upgraded to maximum efficiency, we are wasting the resource. The truth is there is not enough water for everyone’s needs, but by understanding each other’s most important needs we can work to meet them. No one can deny that agriculture is important to the central Oregon economy and way of life, and that water is a crucial element for the economy. By maximizing efficiencies in reservoir management, farm delivery, and on farm use, the amount of water saved will be great. That water can then be used to meet the need of other stakeholders – including the fish!
What value do you see in this process?
Beyond conserving water for fish and wildlife, I see great value in bringing our community together to talk about the issues, set goals and create success – together. Through the DRC’s collaborative process I have gained better understanding and more respect for the agriculture community – especially those in the North Unit district. I better understand how important the river, and the water they use to grow their crops, is to them. My hope is they have gained the same understanding of my needs, and in doing so, they will work to reestablish the Upper Deschutes River to the high quality fishery it once was.
Damien Nurre is a local fishing guide and also serves on the Board of Directors for the Deschutes River Conservancy.
We can look forward to a higher flowing, healthier Whychus Creek this summer as a result of the latest in a series of restoration projects that have revived this Sisters creek.
Once a dry creek bed in the summer months, Whychus Creek now flows year round and fish populations are starting to rebound. In addition to an increase in streamflow, Whychus has been a gem of collaborative conservation efforts over the years with large-scale riparian rehabilitation, removal of fish passage barriers and replanting of native plant life.
In this spirit, the Deschutes River Conservancy, the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council and the U.S. Forest Service are working together with long time Sisters landowners at the Pine Meadow Ranch. The project will replace their concrete dam with a more efficient and fish-friendly pump. Eliminating the water lost through the unlined ditch that previously conveyed water to the ranch will result in the permanent protection of one cubic foot per second (over 646,000 gallons of water per day) of senior water rights in Whychus Creek. When the project is complete this fall, salmon and steelhead will have access to thirteen miles of previously inaccessible habitat as well as a restored reach just below the existing dam site.
These pioneer water rights are some of the oldest in the Deschutes Basin, dating back to 1880. In addition to the benefits for flows and fish in the Creek, this project will strengthen the 135-year long tradition of farming at the Pine Meadow Ranch by enabling the ranch to continue irrigating in a more efficient manner.
The Deschutes River and its tributaries are fed by melting snow from the Cascade Mountains. When we get rain and warmer weather in the winter and early spring, it melts the snow pack, sometimes dramatically increasing stream flows and thereby reducing the amount of snow stored in the mountains. That means less snow remains to melt into stream flows during the summer and fall.
As of February 21st, 2014, snow pack in the Cascades is at 62% of normal. We will need a significant increase in spring snowfall to turn this around.
Talk a little bit about your farming operation. I am a third generation Madras area farmer who has taken over the family farm and has expanded the acreage as opportunity has allowed.
We grow carrot seed, garlic seed, grass seed, alfalfa hay, grain hay and both spring and fall wheat, all of which is irrigated.
Why is the Deschutes River important to you? Why do you care? I grew up on this river. We farm quite a bit of ground that borders the Deschutes canyon. I have a shop full of fishing rods, so the river is important on several levels. I need the water for irrigation, and I love the recreation and wildlife it supports. It is also our legacy to make it better than how we found it. Most of us did not cause the problem, but we can improve it, and help mitigate our influence. Once again, take a look at your life, if there was no river would you be here? I know I probably wouldn’t, and honestly most others wouldn’t either. I believe the river is the lifeblood of Central Oregon–that is how important it is.
Why are you a part of the Deschutes Water Planning Initiative process to restore flows in the Upper Deschutes? Without irrigation we could not survive here, it is our livelihood, and in being so, makes any decisions on the Deschutes very important to our operation. I think it is great that we have such a broad base of stakeholders in this process and I guess I am trying to make sure agriculture is represented. I sit on the board of directors for North Unit Irrigation District, as well as being in commercial agriculture so it is a natural fit.
You don’t have to be involved in the flow restoration process, why do you choose to? WHY be involved? I say why not? The Deschutes River is a precious resource for all of us and it is going to take all of us to preserve it. The river influences so many lives in Central Oregon that most people don’t even realize the extent of its grasp on day to day life. Tourism, agriculture, lifestyle, land values, employment, and general commerce to name a few. The Deschutes River and its tributaries are why we are all here in one way or another. There is a deep affection for the river and people have very strong opinions about how it should be managed. So you have two people adamantly voicing their opinion about the river, both just as passionate, but from different ends of the spectrum. Who has the right? Both do. Who is right? Both can be, but there are laws governing the water and where or what can be done with it. This is where the opportunity lies, in educating and participating, to get everybody to come to a broader understanding of the problems and opportunities involved in this process.
How long have you been farming? I personally have been farming on my own for17 years, but grew up helping out where ever I could. Whether I wanted to or not. About half the acres we have now were from when my grandfather started in 1947.
What do you do to use water as efficiently as possible? Most of our ground is irrigated with sprinklers–predominately wheel lines–and the little bit of flood irrigation we have runs into pump back collection ponds which allows us to reuse the run off. We have also invested in a couple of drip irrigation systems which allow us to target root zones more efficiently in our carrot production. As funding and time allows, the systems are being upgraded for efficiency as well. The biggest things are the sprinkler systems and our ponds which allow us to maximize our efficiency. Water is life around here.
In your view, what is the best possible outcome of [the flow restoration process] for the Deschutes Basin? I would like us, the stakeholders, to be more involved in the management of the river. I think there is plenty of water most years, but it is a change in how we manage it that is needed. Cooperation and creative use of the storage and natural flow could make a huge difference in what the river could be. They need to let us be creative and work together by moving water around and best utilizing it when and where it is needed most.
What value do you see in this process? Cooperation and understanding are two of the biggest things that can be accomplished in this process. Everybody needs to understand how the system works and why it is managed the way it is. Once you have that, then a discussion can be had with an understanding of why we have to do some things and can’t do others. The system has certain designs in it that are purpose built and can’t be discounted, but they can be modified or even changed with the right plan. It is getting everyone’s ideas out there and finding ways to improve what we are doing. The potential is there.