Deschutes River Conservancy
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.
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.
“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.