August 27, 2008 - The Source Weekly Going With the Flow
Sep 05, 2008
The Source Weekly
Going With the Flow: River Conservancy has made quiet progress on flow restoration
Written by Eric Flowers
Wednesday, 27 August 2008
Kyle Gorman remembers a time, not so long ago, when many folks in Central Oregon viewed concepts like water conservation with suspicion, if not outright contempt. Water flushed down the river was water wasted.
Gorman who now serves as the regional manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department was the Deschutes Basin watermaster back in the early 1990s. His job was to make sure that water right holders each got their allotment of water from the regional irrigation districts – a sort of water sheriff for farmers and ranchers.
When asked how the landscape of water and conservation has changed over the past decade and half, Gorman allows that he has a standard anecdote. Back then, said Gorman, if anybody spotted water in Squaw Creek (now Whychus Creek) in Sisters during irrigation season, a phone call was sure to follow letting Gorman know that he wasn’t doing his job: water was going to waste, flushed away.
These days said Gorman, if anybody spotted a dry creek bed in Whychus, heads would be rolling as people lined up to find out why the RIVER wasn’t getting its water.
“That’s 180 degrees difference from when I started working here until now,” Gorman said.
Perhaps the most visible difference has been on the Deschutes River where summer flows have roughly quadrupled over the past eight year, thanks in large part to the work of Deschutes River Conservancy, a federally chartered, local non-profit whose sole mission is to restore our region’s rivers which have been depleted over the past century by water withdrawals for irrigation.
There isn’t any one group that deserves all the credit for the progress that’s been made to date. Farmers, irrigation districts, the federal government, have all had a hand in the work. But those who are familiar with river restoration issues acknowledge that it wouldn’t have happened without the leadership of the DRC. The decade old organization was born out of an initiative by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs that identified restoration of rivers as one of the tribes’ top environmental priorities. Today it comprises tribal interests, as well as local government, farmers, irrigation districts and river advocates. As the group celebrates its, roughly, 10 year anniversary, it stands at the precipice of some of its most ambitious work to date – a multi-year plan that will bring the group close to, or perhaps beyond, its goal of increasing flows on the middle Deschutes River to nearly ten fold of their historic average during irrigation season. If the group’s track record to date is any indicator, they’ve got a decent shot at getting there. This year, the DRC in concert with its partners including farmers and the irrigation districts, has kept roughly 120 cubic feet per second (cfs), or about 900 gallons per second in the river below Bend. That’s a remarkable improvement over just a few years ago when the districts typically allowed a maximum of 30cfs to remain in the river below Bend where the last of the canal diversions take from the river. The result was a river that ran nearly dry during the hottest months of the year, severely impacting native fish populations and other wildlife that count on the river as a refuge.
“Those really decreased summer flows in the past have created conditions where we have had temperatures in the 70-80 degrees realm. Even the redband trout, a very much adapted species has a hard time surviving those temperatures. So the water quality has been limited at low flow,” said Ted Wise, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologist in Bend.
The department, said Wise, has set a minimum target flow for the middle Deschutes River at 250 cubic feet per second, which is closer to the summer flow of the Crooked River than the relative historical trickle of Deschutes below Bend in irrigation season.
Lower flows caused the river to fall out of compliance with federal and state pollution guidelines. In short, the river between Bend and Lake Billy Chinook was a mess. While the problem was clear, the solution was not.
When the River Conservancy was formed in the late 1990s there was no blueprint in Oregon for the kind of work that organization was setting out to do, said Scott McCaulou, program director.
“We found we basically had to invent the wheel in terms of putting water in stream,” said McCaulou, one of the organization’s original two employees. In those early days the staff worked out of their home trying to cobble together projects using obscure and untested water laws that allowed water right holders to allocate all or a portion of their water rights to the river. That may not seem like a big deal, but it was a seismic shift in the irrigation world where the labyrinth of water laws had been designed for more than a century solely to serve the interests of farmers and ranchers.
But retiring irrigation rights is a cash intensive and controversial business. Even in agriculturally challenged Central Oregon with its dry, thin soil drying up farmland isn’t going to make you many friends in the farming and ranching community. It also put the Deschutes River Conservancy in competition with others seeking water rights, including growing cities and deep-pocketed destination resorts.
Irrigation districts, meanwhile, were concerned about losing their rate base and reduced flows in their transmission systems, which could in some cases impact their ability to deliver water to customers on the gravity fed canal system.
The organization got around the impasse by focusing on a less controversial approach – temporary water leases. The leasing program allowed water right holders to temporarily leave their water in the river without giving up their increasingly valuable water rights. By fiscal year 2005, the organization had secured roughly 66 cubic feet per second below Bend, nearly doubled the historic flow.
In the short term, the leases allowed the River Conservancy to chip away at the summer deficit, but they didn’t do much for the overarching goal of permanently securing instream water rights for the Upper Deschutes Basin and the middle river. That started to change in 2004, said McCaulou when the organization started focusing on big-ticket conservation projects. Using funding from a mix of federal and state resources, the River Conservancy began looking at reducing the amount of water that irrigators take from the river by improving the efficiency of their delivery systems. The organization partnered with Deschutes River Ranch near Tumalo to modernize the development’s entire irrigation system, reducing the amount of water that the ranch needed to pull from the river. These type of projects helped the organization chip away at its goal of 250 cubic feet in the river below Bend, but the DRC was looking to do more than nibble. It needed to take a full bite.
At the same time, the irrigation districts were looking at ways to improve their delivery system by piping the historically open-air canals and ditches. Tumalo’s Swalley Irrigation was one of the first to seriously explore the possibility of piping – something that many of its customers didn’t readily embrace because of the prospect of losing “canal views.” After several well-publicized battles and some turn over on the board of directors, the district began working with the city of Bend on a project that would have piped several miles of canal in and around Bend’s urban area. The city had hoped that by funding the project it could free up some of the conserved water, which would have otherwise been lost to leaks in the canals for future domestic use, an important step in securing the city’s long-term water supply. The city argued that it would also benefit the river, as 25 percent of the total conserved water would have to, by law, remain in the river.
Unfortunately for the city, the project raised a red flag for the Water Watch, an environmental watchdog group. Unless all of the conserved water from the piping project was left in the upper river, Water Watch would challenge the project in court because of its potential impact on flows in the lower river where federally protected salmon and steelhead rely on healthy flows.
Rather than butt heads with Water Watch, the city backed off. But where the city found only controversy, the River Conservancy saw opportunity. Using its connections to state and federal funding streams, the organization became the primary financial backer of Swalley’s $9 million piping project. Because all of the conserved water, about 20 cubic feet per (or roughly 150 gallons per second) would remain in the river, Water Watch didn’t challenge the revamped project.
To the contrary, Water Watch staff say the River Conservancy has been a positive force in the basin because of projects like the Swalley piping project. “From our perspective, DRC has provided a valuable service to the basin. They’ve gotten a lot done in a fairly short period of time. I think the relationships they’ve built are both unique and strong,” said Kimberley Priestley, assistant director.
That’s high praise coming from a group that gives cities and other big water users fits because of its principled, and rigid stand on stream flow protection, especially in the Deschutes Basin where it has challenged some of the only legal tools that cities have to create additional water rights.
McCaulou says the group has stayed on the right side of groups like Water Watch because it shares the philosophy that there is a right way and a wrong way to do conservation projects.
Looking to the future, McCaulou said the group is in the midst of putting together a 10-year conservation plan that he says will bring the DRC just shy of the 250 cfs target for the middle river and 32 cubic feet per second on Tumalo Creek below the irrigation district diversion, using the Swalley project as a model. Potential projects with Central Oregon Irrigation District and the North Unit District on the north end of Bend could pay huge dividends for the DRC and, in turn the rivers.
“It's always been said, since I’ve been here at the DRC, that there is enough that we all agree on that we can make progress,” McCaulou said.