Archives : Deschutes River Bend Oregon
By Jake Sahl
Contributing Writer for the Deschutes River Conservancy
When I finally got my head above water, I found myself in the quiet cave formed by our overturned raft. The world under here seemed calm, the roar of the river muffled. For a brief second I considered staying put. The illusion of safety was short lived, however, as I was sucked back underwater when we floated across another hole in the rapids. This time I popped up into sunlight to see my partner swimming for shore as hard as he could. I opted to do the same, managing to snag some rocks and roots just 20-feet upstream of the next Class 4 section. Gasping for breath, awed by the power of the Deschutes, I felt lucky to be alive.
What a dynamic river! Only the day before, I had been enjoying a lazy float on my inner tube a mere 3 miles downstream of the rapids from which I had just narrowly escaped. Even in the middle of a month of 90 degree weather, the water hovered around a frigid 50 degrees. It hadn’t rained in months, yet the flow levels in this reach had jumped from 1,900 to 2,100 cubic-feet-per-second (cfs) since yesterday. How do we explain these seeming contradictions? What makes the Deschutes River tick?
I have spent the better part of a decade studying and working to understand how river systems function and what humans can do to improve our relationship with these amazingly complex systems. As a hydrologist, I can’t help but ask myself what factors come together to give the Deschutes River its character.
Is it the geology of the area? The dominant force in Central Oregon is the volcanism that occurred over millennia as the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate slowly slid under the North American plate, literally melting as it went, before erupting back onto the surface as lava.
Maybe it has more to do with the climate? Lying in the rain shadow formed by the Cascade Range, much of the water in the Deschutes River originates as snowfall which either flows directly into the river or seeps into the porous ground, slowly making its way into the Deschutes via one of the many natural springs within the basin.
Or perhaps it comes down to thousands of years of increasing human impacts on the landscape? There are many large dams on the river and its tributaries which alter the timing and volume of downstream flows, allowing humans to bend the Deschutes to their industrial and agricultural needs.
As you probably know, the answer is that all of these forces together are responsible for creating the Deschutes River that we know today. Furthermore, all three are inextricably linked with one another.
So what makes the Deschutes River tick? Follow along in the coming months as I explore this question as a new Oregonian, novice boater, and aspiring fisherman.
About Jake Sahl:
Born and raised in California, Jake moved to Bend in early 2017. As a hydrologist, he is excited to absorb all the local knowledge of the Deschutes River system! Jake has a BS in Geohydrology from UC Santa Barbara and a MESM in Water Resources from the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. As a consultant, he strives to mitigate human impacts on the freshwater systems upon which we rely, and to restore natural function to highly-urbanized watersheds. Jake spends too much of his free time rock climbing, but also gets out boating and cycling whenever possible.
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.
Talk a little about your guiding business.
I started Deep Canyon Outfitters in 2009 after working with another outfitter for 4 years, and before that, yet another outfitter for 3 years. In total I have 13 years experience guiding fly fishing trips in Central Oregon. While the majority of our clients come to wade the famous waters of the Lower Deschutes, we offer guided trips on the Fall River, Crooked River, Upper Deschutes, and the Cascade Lakes. In 2013, we took 1300 guests fishing, hailing from around the country… if they were experienced anglers, they came to fish the Deschutes River. In 2014, I’m projecting to take 1500+ guests fishing. We have 7 full time guides and 4 part time guides on staff. The health of the river is not just important for me, but for everyone who works for Deep Canyon Outfitters.
Why is the Deschutes River important to you? Why do you care?
The river has many layers of importance for me… for my business – it is imperative for the ecology to be healthy and for the river to support the reputation as the greatest fishery in Oregon. Without a healthy river, the trout and steelhead my clients want to catch would not exist. Without trout and steelhead, Deep Canyon Outfitters may not exist. Without Deep Canyon Outfitters, my staff would not be able to support their families and values. Without my staff, I would not be able to function as a business owner, a resident of Bend, and a caretaker of the Deschutes River.
On a personal level – for me the river is important because it is my home. I learned to fly fish on the famous rivers of Montana, but I developed the lifelong passion for the sport, the fish, and the connection with nature on the Deschutes River. I eat, sleep, and walk its banks over 125 days a year.
There are few rocks, trees, and fish on the Deschutes that I’ve not met. Protecting the resource that I rely upon for sport, spiritual connection, relaxation, and commerce seems natural.
Why are you part of the Deschutes River Conservancy?
I’ve been a DRC board member for the past 8 years and in that time I’ve seen dramatic changes to the river – much higher flows, better ecology for the fish, and reintroduction of salmon and steelhead in the upper basin. None of this would have happened without the work of the Deschutes River Conservancy.
The collaborative process employed by the DRC is, in my estimation, the only option for meeting the needs of every water user in the basin. While I see the importance of more water in the river for fish, I can empathize with other users and understand their water needs to support their way of life. If we don’t work together we all lose.
Why is it important to restore flows in the Upper Deschutes?
The Upper Deschutes river was historically a more productive fishery than the famous Lower Deschutes river. In the late ’70’s and early ’80’s the Upper Deschutes was heralded as the best fishery in Oregon. Restoring flows in the upper basin would return this fishery to its potential. Even small additions of water will have a huge impact – riparian zones will be kept intact during the winter months protecting both habitat and valuable food sources. The economic potential is vast – little to no commercial fishing is done below Wickiup dam today, but a productive fishery coupled with demand for fishing from the boat and close access from Bend would bolster the Upper Deschutes’ economic importance. If the fishing were better in the Upper Deschutes, Deep Canyon Outfitters would have many guests fishing up there, enjoying the scenery and the fish.
What benefits do you see in the river when there are higher flows and lower water temperatures?
Over the past 10 years of fishing the Middle Deschutes River I’ve seen the impact of higher flows and cooler water. The vegetation in the riparian area is fuller. Although this can make angling and casting a challenge, the positive is that the trout populations seem to be more robust, and the insect hatches are extremely prolific. No longer do I steer clear of the Middle D in the summer months. The fishing from late June through early September is much more productive than the days of low flows.
In your view, what is the best possible outcome of the flow restoration process for the Deschutes Basin?
For me and my way of life, the best possible outcome is to increase flows below Wickiup dam to a minimum of 250 cfs from mid October to mid April and recreate a Blue Ribbon fishery near Bend. What I like most about the DRC’s approach is that the goal is not just to restore flows in any one section of the Deschutes basin, but to work with all the stakeholders to create the most efficient water management system. In my mind, without all aspects of water use being upgraded to maximum efficiency, we are wasting the resource. The truth is there is not enough water for everyone’s needs, but by understanding each other’s most important needs we can work to meet them. No one can deny that agriculture is important to the central Oregon economy and way of life, and that water is a crucial element for the economy. By maximizing efficiencies in reservoir management, farm delivery, and on farm use, the amount of water saved will be great. That water can then be used to meet the need of other stakeholders – including the fish!
What value do you see in this process?
Beyond conserving water for fish and wildlife, I see great value in bringing our community together to talk about the issues, set goals and create success – together. Through the DRC’s collaborative process I have gained better understanding and more respect for the agriculture community – especially those in the North Unit district. I better understand how important the river, and the water they use to grow their crops, is to them. My hope is they have gained the same understanding of my needs, and in doing so, they will work to reestablish the Upper Deschutes River to the high quality fishery it once was.
Damien Nurre is a local fishing guide and also serves on the Board of Directors for the Deschutes River Conservancy.
Buy a button for only $10 and give back to the river you love.
Healthy rivers and streams are a vital part of our quality of life here in Central Oregon as well as a legacy we leave behind for our children and grandchildren. The DRC has many ways to give back to the rivers and streams you love, and this year’s button campaign is an accessible way for everyone to do their part to ensure the beauty of the Deschutes Basin endures for generations to come. Buy your button today at the Deschutes Brewery Pubs in Bend and Portland, Deschutes Brewery’s Tasting Room, Visit Bend, Tumalo Creek Kayak and Canoe, The DRC Office, and most Bend Broadband summer event booths.
As a thank you for your support, your button gives you all kinds of discounts from great local businesses.