Category : River News
Two weeks ago a large quantity of trout and other fish species became stranded and died in a side channel of the Deschutes River, near Meadow Camp and Lava Island, southwest of Bend, Oregon. The staff at the DRC is deeply saddened by the death of these fish on the Upper Deschutes River. This tragedy highlights the complexity of the flow issues that have been affecting the Deschutes River for decades.
Unfortunately, this year we are experiencing the unintended consequences of water management policies and practices that have been in place for many years. In a dry year like this year, the reservoirs, Wickiup, Crane Prairie and Crescent, were drawn down very low and water managers are obligated to refill them to serve existing water rights for irrigation season next year. These low streamflows led to this side channel drying up, stranding hundreds of trout and other aquatic species, many of which perished.
The DRC launched the Deschutes Water Planning Initiative in 2012 to tackle this complex water management issue. It is a collaborative stakeholder process with the goal of restoring streamflows in the Upper Deschutes River while simultaneously meeting the water needs of irrigators and municipalities. The DRC’s streamflow goal is to restore 300 cubic feet per second to the Upper Deschutes River, meeting the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s instream water right and flow target for a healthy, thriving fishery and ecosystem.
Lasting solutions will not occur unless all basin stakeholders, including all water right holders, are invested in a collaborative process to develop an integrated water management plan. The DRC and partners hope that this plan will provide the basis for water management agreements to consistently restore streamflows in the Upper Deschutes River while meeting agricultural and municipal needs. As the next critical step in this process, the DRC, the Deschutes Water Alliance and other instream interests have formed a Basin Study Work Group to obtain a Bureau of Reclamation Basin Study. This study will provide the modeling and empirical data needed to move forward with streamflow restoration in the Upper Deschutes River.
You can help this process by becoming more aware of how our river is managed and the efforts currently underway to restore streamflows in the entire river system. At one time, the Upper Deschutes had a stable flow regime that supported a blue ribbon trout fishery. As we make progress devising solutions to meet the needs of the fish, farmers, cities and the Tribes, hopefully, these types of tragedies will be a thing of the past. For more information about the DRC: www.deschutesriver.org.
Originating at the base of Bend Glacier on Broken Top in the Cascade Mountains, Whychus Creek tumbles down through the City of Sisters before flowing into the Deschutes River. As a snowfed, undammed stream, Whychus Creek is subject to large fluctuations in streamflow depending on precipitation and snowmelt.
Two weeks ago, we witnessed just how variable this system can be with a ten year water event resulting from the weekend’s heavy rainfall. Sunday night, water levels in Whychus Creek surged from a seasonal average of around 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) to well over 1000 cfs in a thirty minute time period. That’s a 1000% increase in streamflow!
“This is an extreme event in Whychus Creek, but not unheard of considering the variable nature of the creek,” said Zachary Tillman, program manager at the Deschutes River Conservancy. “You wouldn’t see this kind of event in the Deschutes River, for example, where dramatic fluctuations in flow are reduced by the porous nature of the geology of the drainage area.
Low river flows and associated high water temperatures often negatively affect fish populations. Biologists believe this to be the case in the Deschutes River downstream from Bend, where flows are dramatically altered during the irrigation season. Conversely, increased river flows, lower water temperatures and cold spring inputs often benefit native fish and lead to more abundant populations. With limited access to this reach of the Deschutes River, there has historically been little data to show how fish populations here respond to increased summer flows or to what extent fish congregate in cold water areas.
Recently, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, in partnership with the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, completed the first year of a study of fish populations and habitat use in the Deschutes River between North Canal Dam near the Riverhouse Hotel in Bend and Steelhead Falls located near Culver. The preliminary findings of this five-year study confirm that higher flows and areas of cooler water support higher numbers of redband and brown trout. It also suggested that fish are bigger at cold-water sites and that current flow management in the Deschutes River may benefit introduced brown trout at the expense of native redband populations.
Since 1999, the Deschutes River Conservancy has been working with water users to restore flows to this section of the Deschutes. Before restoration efforts began, flows in this part of the river would drop dramatically during the summer irrigation months to as low as 30 cubic feet per second (cfs). Today, thanks to the participation of local irrigation districts, up to 160 cfs of water is now protected instream during these hot summer months.
This study will allow conservation groups such as the Deschutes River Conservancy and the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council to have the scientific data needed to identify conservation and restoration priorities, develop and implement large scale restoration projects, and further improve conditions for fish and other wildlife.
This study was supported in part by the Central Oregon Irrigation District Mitigation and Enhancement Fund.
The Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) serves the public by practicing and promoting responsible water management. Jeremy Giffin (pictured above) is the OWRD’s Watermaster for Central Oregon and has spent the past 17 years working to ensure long-term sustainability of Oregon’s ecosystems, economy, and quality of life.
DRC: After a long, dry summer, what are water supplies looking like?
Jeremy: The Deschutes and Crooked River basin reservoirs are seasonally low ranging from 21%-67% of capacity. As a result of the very dry conditions through 2013 the natural flows are lower than average and many of the streams in Crook County have gone dry this year.
DRC: We know that flows in the upper section of the Deschutes River tend to be lower in the winter months while flows are being stored in Wickiup and Crane Prairie Reservoirs for summer irrigation. What do you anticipate river levels looking like after such a dry summer?
Jeremy: The flows in the upper Deschutes will start the storage season (typically set mid-October) slightly above the state required minimum of 20 cubic feet per second, as measured at the river gage immediately below Wickiup reservoir. If we have an above average winter with precipitation we could possibly re-assess the situation and increase flows later in the winter if conditions permit.
DRC: How does the OWRD decide the flow level in the Upper Deschutes below Wickiup Reservoir in the winter?
Jeremy: In Oregon, water rights are full filled based on seniority. We manage the flows to ensure that the senior water rights are satisfied first. If we have water in excess of the legal rights we will work with ODFW and other partners to provide flows for ecological needs which tend to be junior.
DRC: We just saw Colorado struggle with massive flooding. Could that kind of thing happen in the Deschutes basin?
Jeremy: Possibly in the Crooked River basin and even to a lesser extent in the drainages of Tumalo Creek, Whychus Creek, Little Deschutes River & Trout Creek. However the mainstems of rivers such as the Deschutes and Metolious are largely spring fed and not as susceptible to large scale flooding like we recently saw in Colorado.
Whychus Creek in Sisters has made a huge comeback in the past several years through the collaborative efforts of the Deschutes River Conservancy (streamflow), Three Sisters Irrigation District (TSID – water conservation), the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council (fish passage & habitat) and the Deschutes Land Trust (land conservation).
Long-time Central Oregon residents will remember Whychus Creek running dry in the summer months, severely impacting native fish populations. Since we started flow restoration efforts in Whychus, the creek now almost meets the State’s minimum flow requirement of 33 cubic feet per second (cfs). Increased flows of cool water are going a long way to restore stream conditions that support the successful reintroduction of salmon and steelhead in Whychus Creek.
Much of this restoration work has been achieved through creating a more efficient irrigation system for TSID. By piping their leaking canal system, TSID is able to restore flows to the creek while delivering pressurized water to its farming and ranching patrons, reducing or eliminating their pumping costs.
The fourth phase in TSID’s ongoing initiative to completely pipe its system was recently completed – TSID has now piped over 60% of its 60 miles of canals. This phase of the project piped one mile of the canal, restoring 1.3 cfs to Whychus. That is more than 840,000 gallons of water per day! This winter, a similar project breaks ground bringing TSID even closer to completing their water conservation project and restoring a total of an additional 1.3 cfs to Whychus Creek. This project is funded by the Pelton Fund, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, Bureau of Reclamation and the Three Sisters Irrigation District.
On June 6th of this year, Central Oregon lost one of its most important figures in water management. Bob Main was Watermaster and then Regional Manager at the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) for twenty-two years during a time of dramatic change in perception about water management in the region.
Bob’s philosophy of meeting irrigators’ needs while improving the quality of our rivers was at the heart the Deschutes River Conservancy’s (DRC) formation in 1996. He felt strongly that the State needed to honor its commitments to farmers’ water rights. As an avid outdoorsman, Bob also saw the need for more water in our streams and rivers. Bob had the vision and wisdom to understand that a voluntary approach could succeed in restoring our waterways. In 1992, Bob negotiated with water right holders to voluntarily leave 2.5 cfs in Tumalo Creek, the first summer flow in that part of the creek in almost a century.
As a founding DRC board member, Bob worked hard to make sure that his fellow board members understood all sides of the issues being discussed. Bob’s expertise, innovative ideas, passion and generosity made him one of the most dedicated supporters of the DRC. We will miss him greatly.
Spring is now in full swing here in the High Desert and the warmer weather is starting to draw people to the river. This past winter was dryer than normal meaning that water supply for this irrigation season is not as robust as last year. In fact, the snow pack in the Cascades was 34% lower at the start of the irrigation season than last year.
The good news is that the reservoirs are 40% fuller than average thanks to the snowier winters of 2011 and 2010. The combined stored water will allow for adequate summer flows for fish and recreation in the Deschutes Basin while providing dependable water for Central Oregon’s farmers.