Archives : Streamflow Restoration
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.
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.
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.
Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID) is in the process of piping almost one mile of their I-Lateral canal, located near the Alfalfa Store & Feed. The conserved water from this project will be transferred to farms in North Unit Irrigation District (NUID). NUID will, in turn, transfer 5 cfs instream to the Crooked River to restore critical steelhead habitat. This project upgrades COID’s canal system while reducing NUID’s reliance on Crooked River water. A win across the board for the irrigation districts and fish!
Whychus Creek tumbles down the east slopes of the Cascade Mountains, through the City of Sisters, and into the Deschutes River. For over a century, summer irrigation demands far exceeded water supply meaning parts of the creek often ran dry, dramatically affecting native fish populations. Over the past decade, The Deschutes River Conservancy (DRC), The Deschutes Land Trust, and the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, and Three Sisters Irrigation District have worked to restore the conditions necessary to restore healthy habitat for steelhead in Whychus Creek.
In 2007, longtime funder of the DRC, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB), created their Special Investment Partnership (SIP) program designed to help implement significant collaborative restoration projects that obtain long-term ecological outcomes. The unique integration of land and streamflow conservation, habitat restoration, and steelhead reintroduction efforts underway in Whychus was the perfect fit for SIP funding.
The Deschutes River Conservancy recently hosted a project tour for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Bonneville Power Administration, primary funders that have been integral in shaping our conservation efforts for the past 10 years. Both organizations have funded numerous projects over the years, but this tour was all about salmon and steelhead reintroduction efforts.
The first stop on the tour was Whychus Creek in Sisters, one of our biggest success stories. Not too long ago, Whychus Creek ran dry in the summer irrigation months, dramatically impacting native fish populations. Now, after a series of restoration projects implemented by the DRC and our partners, we are able to enjoy a healthy creek that is home once again to salmon and steelhead.
The second stop was at the Crooked River near Smith Rock. This past winter, the DRC and North Unit Irrigation district broke ground on the first of a series of projects that will address irrigation needs of farmers in the Madras and Culver areas as well as the habitat needs for salmon and steelhead in the lower Crooked River. When complete, The North Unit Initiative will be the largest flow restoration project in Oregon’s history.
The last stop on the tour was McKay Creek. Nestled into the Ochoco National Forest northeast of Prineville, McKay Creek suffers from low streamflow during the summer months. When completed, the McKay Creek Water Rights Switch will provide farmers with a more reliable water source and up to 11 cubic feet per second (cfs) of streamflow will be restored in the creek during a critical period for steelhead spawning and migration.