Reflections on Water in Central Oregon

This year we are celebrating the completion of a 10-year water conservation project with Three Sisters Irrigation District (TSID) to pipe their main canal in Sisters, Oregon. Together with other water purchases over the past decade, this project largely completes our acquisition of permanent water rights on Whychus, although a few remaining senior water rights may offer future opportunities. The result of these acquisitions is more consistent summer streamflows of between 20-30 cubic feet per second (cfs).

After decades of seasonal devastation including dry streambeds in 2 out of 3 years and degraded fish habitat, we are now seeing a revival of the creek. Restored meanders and floodplains have markedly improved conditions for native fish. The increased flows created opportunities for further rehabilitation over the years with our partners the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council and the Deschutes Land Trust. Restored riparian habitat and floodplain connection have resulted in an extraordinary transformation of Camp Polk Meadow – a great example of how a river system can be successfully revitalized.

As struggles with snowpack continue in the arid west, water is becoming more and more precious. We no longer have the luxury of taking all we want without considering the ecological consequences. The conservation work in Whychus Creek shows how a stream can be restored while delivering more reliable water to irrigators. We hope to replicate this success on the Upper Deschutes River in the coming years.
Snowpack was a mere 65% of average in Central Oregon this past winter. Even though reservoirs were full at the beginning of the irrigation season, now just a month into summer, Wickiup Reservoir is already more than half empty and will likely be nearly empty by the end of irrigation season. This does not bode well for next year if dry conditions persist and the current water demand continues unabated.

This is important because the key to solving the dramatic flow problems in the Upper Deschutes relies on the ability to manage water in Wickiup for multiple purposes – for irrigators and for fish and wildlife. And that only becomes possible if irrigation demands are reduced through water conservation. Climate change will make this challenge even greater.

We are wrapping up a three-year study this year that shows us a number of approaches to move forward as a community to ensure the water needs of the river, towns, and farmers will all be met in the coming years and decades. Restoration in the Upper Deschutes will take a much larger lift than in Whychus Creek, but we are confident that with the cooperation of the irrigation districts, the river community, and local governments we will see a healthy Deschutes River in our lifetimes.