July 3, 2009 - Bend Bulletin How We’ve Reached Where We Are On Deschutes Water Rules

Jul 08, 2009

July 3, 2009 - Bend Bulletin How We’ve Reached Where We Are On Deschutes Water Rules How we’ve reached where we are on Deschutes water rules
And where we may be going in the future

By Kate Ramsayer / The Bulletin

Published: July 03. 2009 12:22PM PST

A decade ago, so little water flowed in the Middle Deschutes some summer months that trout died when the shallow water warmed up.

The state prohibited cities, developers and others from tapping into any new sources of groundwater for four years, as scientists attempted to figure out the complex interactions of water in rivers, creeks and underground aquifers in the Deschutes Basin.

Today, three times as much water is dedicated to the Deschutes River and its aquatic inhabitants. Projects in development will allow even more water to flow down the Middle Deschutes in the coming years. The state will allow some new groundwater wells.

Still, players in Central Or-egon’s water world see a lot of work to be done in the coming years.

Improving water quality in the Deschutes River is key to the area’s quality of life, said Tod Heisler, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy.

“It basically is the underpinnings of our local economy, is the way we look at it,” he said. “The natural assets we have are perhaps the most important assets. ... You’ve got to look at why people come to our area, and why they want to live here.”

While the Deschutes River draws anglers and rafters and boaters now, a century ago its waters drew farmers and ranchers, who diverted flows for irrigation. The river was divvied up between irrigation districts, with a small amount reserved for the river under a “gentlemen’s agreement” between the districts.

That was the situation for decades, but in the 1990s, people began to realize that something had to change, said Steve Johnson, manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District.

The U.S. Geological Survey conducted a study that illustrated the connections between groundwater upstream and surface water farther downstream — when water is pumped from the aquifer in the Bend area, less water flows down the Lower Deschutes.

The state put a hold on new groundwater wells in 1999. Several years later, it set regulations that allowed people to tap into groundwater sources — but only if they balanced it out by returning water to the river.

Different groups, including the Deschutes River Conservancy and the Deschutes Water Alliance, formed to tackle the complex transfers and leases of water between irrigation districts, conservation groups, municipalities, developers and others.

For example, working through the Deschutes Water Alliance and its water bank, the irrigation districts determined that being paid to give up the rights to some of their water, and let it flow down the river instead, is a way to adapt to the urbanization of Central Oregon while keeping the districts whole, Johnson said

When Idaho irrigators hear this, they’re shocked, he said.

“It’s like trying to kidnap their children, to take away water rights,” Johnson said.

Central Oregon’s irrigators worked with the Deschutes River Conservancy and others to figure out ways to increase the water in the river to benefit fish, rafters and the ecosystem, while still watering crops and pastures.

“It’s pretty creative, and it’s being recognized as that,” Johnson said.

Through water right transfers, leases and water conservation projects, the minimum amount of water that flows down the Deschutes River has almost tripled — from about 45 cubic feet per second in 2002 to about 130 cubic feet per second in 2008 — just under 1,000 gallons per second.

And the amount will likely continue to increase.

In the coming months, projects to replace leaky canals with pipes will conserve another 50 cubic feet per second, Johnson said.

“Nobody expected us to be able to move that fast on such a complex issue,” said Patrick Griffiths with the city of Bend, noting the water transfers and increased flows in the Deschutes River.

But now members of the Deschutes Water Alliance are hoping to expand the organization — bringing in area counties and other elected officials, Heisler said.

The group will continue to tackle issues like ensuring there’s enough water for municipalities, irrigators and fish, Griffiths said. And working cooperatively could decrease conflicts that lead to litigation, he said, noting that lawsuits can lead to higher water costs.

“It’s a much more cost-effective method in the long run,” Griffiths said.

Kate Ramsayer can be reached at 541-617-7811 or at kramsayer@bendbulletin.com.


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