By MICHAEL KOHN
A controversial water use plan that will guide how water in the Deschutes basin is allocated to irrigators over the next 30 years has been supported by the Deschutes County Commission.
Commissioners described the draft habitat conservation plan as “reasonable” when evaluating the other alternatives’ effect on agricultural economics, according to a letter submitted by the commission.
The commission’s comment was one of more than 1,500 letters submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the plan, which has the final say on whether or not the 30-year plan should be adopted.
In their letter, commissioners Phil Henderson, Tony DeBone and Patti Adair preferred the “proposed action” of the plan, rather than the more aggressive alternatives. According to the proposed action, the winter flow release from Wickiup Reservoir would increase to 200 cubic feet per second within six to 10 years. Under Alternative 3 the amount released in that time period would increase to 300 cubic feet per second while under Alternative 4 it would reach 400 to 600 cubic feet per second.
Wickiup Reservoir controls the amount of water released into the Deschutes River, which flows through Bend and serves as both a recreation spot and a habitat for wildlife.
The plan to increase the flow of water will help improve habitats for endangered species, including the Oregon spotted frog, steelhead trout and bull trout. Releasing more water in winter means less water will be available in summer for irrigators, so the plan includes water conservation measures.
The plan is required as part of an application for an incidental take permit. The permit protects the applicants from lawsuits in case threatened species are inadvertently harmed during otherwise lawful activities. The applicants for the permit include eight irrigation districts in Central Oregon and the city of Prineville.
In its letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Deschutes County Commission said the habitat conservation plan will create financial hardships for the applicants and their customers over the next 30 years but added that the impacts of alternatives 3 and 4 are even more pronounced.
Even though the board supports the proposed action, it adds in its letter that some elements of Alternative 3 offer advantages. Chief among the advantages is that Alternative 3 would put more water into the Deschutes sooner than Alternative 2, which could minimize or negate costly litigation expenses.
While the commission tepidly supported the plan, many other commenters dismissed it for not doing more to improve conditions for wildlife in the Deschutes basin.
Commenters largely support fast -tracking the plan to increase water levels to 600 cubic feet per second within 10 years.
The proposed option has been blasted by environmentalists for not guaranteeing the use of more efficient on-farm water distribution and conservation tools, instead relying heavily on taxpayer -funded, high-cost piping projects.
“The lack of any serious effort in the HCP to embrace conservation proves once again that wasteful and reckless agencies like the Central Oregon Irrigation District have no intention to change the way they operate and will continue treating our river and watershed like an irrigation ditch,” according to a comment submitted last month by Mykl Nelson.
Steve Forrester, the Prineville city manager, acknowledged that the habitat conservation plan isn’t perfect.
“If the HCP could be a silver bullet to all the problems it would be wonderful, but that’s not practical,” said Forrester, city manager since 2009. “We have a lot more work to do, a lot more studies and a lot more to strengthen conditions. This is not the end.”
Forrester said piping the open canals will be a basis for on-farm water conservation improvements because piping will help the districts accurately measure water usage.
“It’s a chicken and egg situation. The piping is needed first before the on-farm improvements,” said Forrester.
The public comment period for the plan comes to an end on Tuesday. Comments on the plan must be received by 8:59 p.m. Pacific time Tuesday. To submit a comment, visit www.regulations.gov and type “FWS-R1-ES-2019-0091” in the search bar.