Deschutes River Conservancy
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.
“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.
The harvest season is drawing to a close in Central Oregon as fall seeding and preparation for the next year begin. With the successful completion of a diversity of crops grown, from garbanzo beans to fresh vegetables, the year turned out good.
Because of efficiencies in irrigation practices, crops that require less water, and the conservation efforts by the irrigation districts throughout Central Oregon, a shortage of irrigation water was overcome.
“This past season was great for most Commodities grown through out Central Oregon with plenty of sunshine and frost free days.” said Richard Macy, a third generation Culver farmer.
“The proof will be after all the seed crops are cleaned, commodities sold, and bills paid. This cycle can take as long as seventeen months before you see the bottom line.”
Even though, Central Oregon is a great place to farm and watch your family grow.
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.
Up to 90% of the water used in Central Oregon supports local agriculture. Much of the irrigation system was developed more than 100 years ago with technology that’s now outdated.
Today, the DRC works closely with local irrigation districts and other partners to improve and update water use efficiency in Central Oregon — restoring much-needed water to our rivers and streams.
Modest changes can yield impressive results. Nearly half of the water now protected in the Deschutes River, Whychus Creek and the Crooked River is the result of piping only 7% of the canal system. To visualize total restored flows, imagine more than eight Olympic-sized swimming pools per hour pouring back into Central Oregon’s rivers and streams!
Healthy rivers are important to both the ecosystem and to our community. We’re working with our partners to find new ways to balance water use and meet all of our needs, particularly in the river. To achieve this, we will need to employ new tools, such as water management agreements, and existing tools, such as water rights leasing, in-stream water transfers, and piping and lining canals. We believe that if we collectively re-think how we use water, everyone can benefit — including the river and irrigated agriculture.
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.
“Chuush” is the word you’ll hear at the beginning and end of any ceremonial meal in Warm Springs. It means water in the Warm Springs language, Ichishkiin. Held in the highest regard by the Tribes, water is believed to be the first gift given by the Creator. Water is the giver of life.
The Warm Springs reservation is home to nearly five thousand tribal members and is downstream from the cities of Bend, Redmond and Madras. Unlike their neighbors upstream who draw their drinking water from other sources, the water in Warm Springs comes from the Deschutes River.
Because water plays such an important role in tribal culture and life, it is no wonder that the water quality of the Deschutes River is of the utmost importance to the Tribes. To ensure this precious resource was protected, the Tribes worked with local water interests to form the Deschutes River Conservancy in 1996.
“We need to be respectful of these resources,” said Deanie Johnson, a life-long Warm Springs resident. “We need to be able to make future generations understand why the river is so important.” While much work has gone into restoring flows in the Deschutes River, tribal members like Deanie would like to see more attention paid to water quality — a responsibility we all share.
“When you turn on the faucet in Warm Springs, you can smell the chlorine before the water pours out. It’s really amplified here because our water comes straight from the Deschutes River and needs to be treated quite a bit before we can drink it. We need to be respectful of that water and I hope that the rest of the basin can be mindful that there are people living downstream from them.”
Deanie Johnson is a Wasco tribal member living in Warm Springs along the Deschutes River. Water is the most important resource for the Warm Springs tribes and Deanie was kind enough to spend some time with us to share her perspective.