Archives : Water management in Central Oregon

What you need to know about the Deschutes

March 18th, 2016
Photo: Richard Scott Nelson

Photo: Richard Scott Nelson

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We can solve the problem by finding a better way to manage our water.  100-year old leaking canals and outdated irrigation practices make it difficult to move and use water efficiently in some areas.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.

What’s next?
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.