Category : River Restoration Stories
DRC worked with several landowners to transfer 0.87 cfs of senior water rights off of developing lands at the edge of Sisters (2012 – 2016). The Whychus Creek irrigation diversion was a fish barrier and difficult to manage, the small ditch did not transport the water effectively and the landowner with the largest water right was no longer interested in farming.
When the water was submitted for transfer, the 30+ acre property was seeded with native and dryland grasses to deter weeds. A few years later the diversion structure was removed and the riparian area restored by UDWC.
DRC staff take a morning each year to walk the previously irrigated property and pull noxious weeds. Each year of weed-pulling nets fewer and fewer noxious weeds, though it’s very beneficial to continue pulling as seeds continue to blow in from neighboring properties.
A huge thank you to DRC’s Gen Hubert (left) for organizing this event each year!
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.
This week, the Deschutes River Conservancy helped welcome the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) to the Deschutes Basin and attended OWEB’s quarterly board meeting in Madras. The Deschutes Partnership and partner organizations (DRC, the Deschutes Land Trust, Upper Deschutes watershed Council and the Crooked River Watershed Council) reported to OWEB board members on its experience with OWEB’s Focused Investment Partnership (FIP) program. OWEB awarded the Deschutes Partnership $4M through the FIP program over the 2015-2017 biennium to help restore the physical and biological conditions necessary for successful anadromous fish reintroduction in the Deschutes Basin. DRC used funding from this grant to support its work on Whychus Creek with Three Sisters Irrigation District and to increase streamflow on McKay Creek, a tributary to the Crooked River. DRC is grateful to OWEB for its support of our work over the years. OWEB’s significant investment in the Deschutes Partnership has helped to leverage resources and increase the pace and scale of restoration in the Deschtues Basin.
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.
Upper Deschutes River
The Basin Study Work Group is a basin wide collaborative working to restore flows in critical reaches such as the Upper Deschutes for the past 2 years. This year, the group is identifying the specifics of new water management solutions for the Upper Deschutes Basin. These include water conservation, water marketing, new storage options, and new ways to re-balance water between rivers, farms and cities. Bureau of Reclamation will model these solutions to help us understand how well they meet instream and out of stream needs under different climate change scenarios. This work will be complete spring of 2018. We are looking forward to then making large scale agreements that will guide the sustainable management and use of water moving into the future.
We are moving forward in our partnership with Ochoco Irrigation District to develop the McKay Creek Water Rights Switch. This project would restore natural flow to McKay Creek in exchange for providing landowners irrigation water rights from Ochoco Irrigation District. Increased flows will improve habitat and water quality for summer steelhead and redband trout, and will increase fish access to 37 miles of stream in McKay Creek.
Phase Eight of the Three Sisters Irrigation District Main Canal begins this winter. This phase will pipe another 4,400 feet and protect an additional 1 cfs instream. With the completion of Phase Eight, the project will include 8.27 miles of piped canal yielding 14.32 cubic feet per second (cfs) of conserved water–all of which is protected instream. This increase in streamflows will help meet minimum streamflow targets from April through October to improve conditions for reintroduced steelhead, Chinook salmon, and native redband trout from the diversion to the mouth of Whychus Creek.
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.
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.”