Category : River Restoration Stories
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.
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 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.
“If someone were to have asked me five years ago: What would be your fantasy addition to your ranch? I would have said a center-pivot irrigation system that would improve my crop and save water. But I never thought I could afford one – until I talked to folks from the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council and Deschutes River Conservancy.”
Cris Converse, Pine Meadow Ranch
Central Oregon ranchers and environmental groups often have very different perspectives. But last year, I harvested the best hay crop I have ever seen thanks to a water conservation project on Whychus Creek.
If you ask any farmer or rancher like myself, we would all say the same thing about water: keep it flowing for us. That’s why I was skeptical when I started hearing about water conservation ideas that would impact my ranch.
But then I realized we agreed on something: inefficient irrigation systems don’t benefit anyone. Ranchers and fish both lose. So we worked together and removed a dam on Whychus Creek,
constructed a new irrigation pump and installed a center-pivot.
Thirteen miles of upstream spawning and rearing habitat are now open to reintroduced Chinook salmon and steelhead as well as redband trout now that the last concrete dam on Whychus Creek has been removed.
“It’s rewarding to see all the benefits of this project become reality,” said Mathias Perle, Upper Deschutes Watershed Council’s Project Manager. “This dam coming out opens the door for broader restoration to take shape up and downstream of the dam.”
The Upper Deschutes Watershed Council (UDWC), the Deschutes National Forest, the Deschutes River Conservancy (DRC) and Pine Meadow Ranch worked cooperatively to improve overall stream function by removing this fish passage barrier, increasing streamflows, and restoring habitat, while also installing a more efficient irrigation delivery system for the Ranch.
“This was a great opportunity for multiple partners to come together and focus on what they do best, whether it be dam removal, floodplain restoration or purchasing water rights,” said Zach Tillman, DRC’s Program Manager for Whychus Creek. “Many pieces had to come together for this project to happen and the UDWC deserves special credit for the long term relationship they forged with Pine Meadow Ranch as the water right holders and the Deschutes National Forest as the landowners.”
Moving upstream, the DRC and the UDWC are looking forward to continuing our partnership in addressing increased flows and fish passage at the last remaining earthen dam on Whychus Creek.
Deschutes River is one of the defining characteristics of Central Oregon. As our region’s cities have grown, many community leaders have helped to responsibly guide and shape this growth to maintain the quality of life we all enjoy today.
Since 1969, Brooks Resources, chaired by Mike Hollern, has been a leader in preserving the character of Bend. Brooks creates planned communities that “enhance, rather than degrade, the natural environment,” according to Mike.
Mike is a founding Board member of the Deschutes River Conservancy. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that preserving the trees, improving water quality and increasing water quantity in the Deschutes River are priorities for the company. “These are the reasons people live here, and we strive to build communities that provide residents with connections to our stunning natural environment,” says Mike.
One such enhancement is a river-friendly hydropower plant upstream from the Bill Healy Bridge in Bend. Brooks Resources, developer of the adjacent Mount Bachelor Village Resort, helped Central Oregon Irrigation District plan the project to have minimal visual and environmental impact. Profits from power sales fund water conservation projects around Central Oregon.
Another example of the company’s dedication to the preservation of the natural environment: the DRC receives funding through the Oregon Community Foundation from each developer sale in its North Rim community. These funds have helped to restore much-needed flows in the Deschutes River.
The Deschutes River runs through many aspects of Mike’s and his wife, Sue’s, lives – including their home on Mirror Pond. “We are always aware that we are privileged to live on the river,” Mike said. “It reminds us every day of our good fortune, and motivates us to protect and nurture the wonderful environment surrounding us.”
“I hope that Central Oregon will grow steadily and thoughtfully while maintaining its unique character and natural advantages,” Mike said of the future. “Without the Deschutes River, Bend wouldn’t be here. It’s the life and soul of this community.”
Rimrock Ranch is a gorgeous 1,120 acre property situated along Whychus Creek near Sisters. When owners Gayle and Bob Baker moved to the ranch nearly two decades ago, they fell in love with the wild nature of the property. In order to protect the area from future sub-division, Gayle and Bob worked with the Deschutes Land Trust to establish a conservation easement for the entire ranch.
“Whychus Creek is the life of the ranch,” said Gayle. “Nature is life here, and we need to protect and enhance it wherever and whenever possible.”
Everyone who lives in Central Oregon has a stake in the Deschutes River and tributaries like Whychus. Some depend on the rivers and streams for their livelihoods, some for recreation – and nearly every ecosystem in the region depends upon them, too.
This is why landowners, communities, agricultural, recreational and other interests are working together to find long-term solutions that address both human and environmental needs.
Gayle believes the collaborative approach is essential. “The Deschutes Basin can regain its beauty of wildness, recreation, wildlife and vegetation only through the efforts of all,” she said. “The economic, spiritual and living values need to be taught to everyone.”
Whychus Creek itself has benefited greatly from flow and habitat restoration projects over the past decade. The Deschutes River Conservancy and our partners – the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, the Deschutes Land Trust, the US Forest Service and Three Sisters Irrigation District – have worked together to restore healthier conditions for salmon and steelhead in the creek while maintaining local water rights for agriculture.
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.
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.