Fish kills. High silt content. The habitat is so bad the Oregon spotted frog is threatened to wink out of existence.
The struggles to tame the river changed it into something less healthy. Before irrigation canals and reservoirs, the Deschutes had more regular flows. It averaged 600 cubic feet per second to 800 cfs upstream of Bend. Until recently, it’s been fluctuating much more wildly from 20 cfs to 1,800 cfs. Low flow levels warm up the river making it more unhealthy.
That problem is being addressed. Central Oregon’s irrigation districts have agreed to leave more water in the river. Piping irrigation canals is terribly expensive but moves water more efficiently so not as much has to be taken from the river. Flows in the Deschutes may ratchet up to a minimum of 300 cfs in the next several years. That’s progress.
The Oregon Legislature is considering a bill, House Bill 3103, that could make a critical change to improve the flexibility of how water can be used in the Deschutes Basin and across the state.
Consider Wickiup Reservoir. It’s one of the largest reservoirs in Oregon. It’s about 50 miles from Bend by car. It can hold up to 200,000 acre feet of water, at least when snowpack and climate change cooperate. (One acre foot of water is the amount of water to cover an acre in one foot of water or about 325,851 gallons.)
Every drop of water in the reservoir is officially designated for the use of irrigation by North Unit Irrigation District, which serves the area around Madras. On the state level, rights to store water are tied to specifics — the location of the reservoir, the location of the dam, where the water is diverted and the purpose or use of the stored water.
Say you want to change one — to release more water from Wickiup to help water habitat for the spotted frog and other creatures. The Oregon Department of Justice issued a memo in 2018 saying that although there are exceptions, Oregon’s Water Resources Department doesn’t have the authority to change storage rights. HB 3103 would allow the change for the use of water.
It wouldn’t only benefit the situation at Wickiup. Other reservoirs in Oregon have similar restrictions that limit flexibility.
In the past, some irrigation districts and farmers have wanted more than just flexibility in use of stored water. They have wanted flexibility in where the water was stored, as well. That is something that Oregon should do, too. But changing the use is much, much less controversial. This bill could pass this session. Legislators, pass it.