Deschutes Basin water users scramble to make ends meet in century-old system

August 14, 2022
Deschutes Basin water users scramble to make ends meet in century-old system

The state of drought in Central Oregon and the fortitude needed to overcome it were both evident as Spring Alaska Schreiner pointed to a small patch of dusty corn, beans and squash plants.

The fenced plot on the hillside overlooking the rest of Sakari Farms was an attempt at dry farming, a practice used by some Indigenous communities in drier regions that relies on natural moisture instead of irrigation, and an experiment Schreiner, a member of the Chugach Alaska Native Corporation and Alaska’s Valdez Native Tribe, was attempting this year in the face of a lack of water.

Part of the Tumalo Irrigation District, the farm this summer only receives irrigation water every other week. On off weeks, Schreiner has to rely on what remains in the farm’s pond, which is shared with a neighbor.

“These are really high-value crops,” Schreiner said, pointing to a row in the backfield of the small farm. “This week when they turned the water off, we rationed the pond really hard.”

Schreiner has made changes in an attempt to cope with historic drought in a basin where water allocations exceed the actual water supply. Farmers, conservationists, cities and homeowners have changed habits, infrastructure and usage — but deeply thorny questions still remain about who ought to be doing more to fix a cumbersome system and what the future of water use in the Deschutes Basin could look like.

Beyond the farm’s higher-tech efforts to install more efficient drip irrigation systems and probes to measure soil conditions, Sakari Farms’ dry farming on the hill was one such experiment. Schreiner’s farm often focuses on growing traditional seeds from Indigenous people across the country, and the hope was that these seeds would be accustomed to natural fluctuations in precipitation.

The plants greened up with the summer’s late rains, but by August, the plants were brown and withered in the dusty earth.

Schreiner isn’t sure if she’ll experiment with dry farming again next year. Having faith in the land can still require the soil and water conditions be right, she said.

“You can be native all day, but we’re not in charge,” Schreiner said.

Long-standing drought

Central Oregon has been challenged for years by a severe drought stemming from low precipitation in the Cascades. Some variation in annual precipitation is natural over multi-decade cycles, but a warming planet has deepened those cycles. Oregon’s snowpack, which drives the volume of water in the Deschutes Basin, has been declining for decades and is likely to continue doing so, state climate scientists predict.

Those reductions in precipitation have led to record low flows in the Deschutes Basin, which includes the tributaries and reservoirs of the Deschutes and Crooked Rivers.

The Wickiup Reservoir, for example, built at the south end of the Deschutes River to store water for Madras farmers to use in the summer growing season, has just around 35% of its normal amount of stored water for this time of year. The Prineville Reservoir, south of Prineville on the Crooked River, has around a quarter of its normal water stored.

The story of drought in the Deschutes Basin — and in the American West — is intimately tied with the complex of rights used to allocate water, according to Kyle Gorman, region manager with the Oregon Water Resources Department.

In an effort to encourage pioneers to move west and “settle” the land — in Central Oregon’s case, a high desert inhabited by the Indigenous communities which now make up the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs — the federal government offered settlers the right to take water from the region’s rivers if they put it to “beneficial use.” In other words, if they used the water to irrigate the land, they could have it.

This policy led to a boom in the issuance of water rights between 1900 and 1913, and heavy speculation about how much land could be irrigated by the river. By 1913, the Oregon state engineer, the precursor to the state’s Water Resources Department, halted any further appropriation of the Deschutes River’s water above Bend, according to Gorman.

“A lot of water was pretty much spoken for by the early 20th century,” Gorman said.

The system still endures today and determines who gets water. In times of drought, those with newer water rights get their water cutoff earlier than those with older water rights. That means, for example, farmers in the North Unit Irrigation District, which has many of the region’s major farms in and around Madras, have to curtail their water use earlier than those in the Central Oregon Irrigation District, which is typically made up of smaller non-commercial farms between Bend and Redmond.

And only when the state passed the Instream Water Rights Act in 1987 did the river itself receive water rights. The bill allowed the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife to apply for “in-stream” water rights, intended to keep water in the river to provide habitat for aquatic species.

But those relatively new water rights are some of the lowest priority rights across the basin, meaning that in practice ODFW has only been able to guarantee in-stream water by acquiring older rights from other users. That means, in drought years, flows in some parts of the basin get so low that endangered species of fish and frogs simply can’t survive.

Brett Hodgson, a retired state fish biologist, points to sections of the Crooked River that are now flowing with just a trickle of water. There, the water available to keep reintroduced fish species alive and to maintain a popular recreational fishery below the Prineville Reservoir is completely dependent on flows released from that reservoir.

“Both those are completely dependent upon the storage and release of water from Prineville Reservoir,” Hodgson said. “And that water is primarily utilized for irrigation purposes, and due to irrigation demand, the flows being released from the reservoir in recent years have not been favorable for fish.”

And while a 2021 habitat conservation plan offers improved flows for threatened bull trout and Oregon spotted frogs over future years, Hodgson said many species don’t have time to wait in dry streams.

“Based on hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years of evolution, these species have adapted some levels of tolerance to these boom and bust years and cycles,” Hodgson said. “But … they can only take so much for so long, and if you have chronic drought and poor water conditions, even the most tough species are going to find it very difficult to hang on and have productive populations.”

Bend keeps up with needs, city says

Despite the dire straits the fish and frogs in the Deschutes Basin face, homeowners using city water face few difficulties turning on the tap.

If you ask how that’s possible, Dan Denning will proudly point you to figures that show increasing efficiency in the system that brings the city water from Bridge Creek in the Deschutes National Forest and 20 underground wells across the city. In 2000, the city served around 14,500 metered connections, and delivered around 23 million gallons of water on the peak day of the year. By 2020, the number of metered connections had skyrocketed to more than twice that, but the peak demand had only crept up to 26 million gallons.

Denning, the city’s water conservation utility program manager, credits a handful of city efficiency programs for its ability to keep up with the city’s growth with the water that it has. The city constantly measures the amount of water being used at every connection and uses that data to notify customers of potential leaks and invite high users to have utility department staff inspect their systems and offer free efficiency recommendations.

“You can’t save what you can’t measure,” Denning said.

The city has more efficiency efforts, like requiring lower water landscaping as a part of city code, in the works, too. He thinks of water conservation as a source of the water that will be needed to accommodate future growth.

But will that be enough for the growth the city expects in the coming decades?

“Our 20 year projections say yes. If we continue down the track of investing in maintaining infrastructure and advancing our conservation efforts, then our analysis says yes,” Denning said. “The variables in there are those short term effects of climate change, of what we’re going to get in annual snowpack — and those things I can’t predict.”

Farmers face affects

Kevin Richards does not have the same ease of access to water. He grew up on his family’s farm near Madras and, after spending time away for college and living on the east coast, returned to grow carrots, parsley and Kentucky bluegrass for seeds, peppermint, hay, wheat and alfalfa across the farm’s several hundred acres. This year’s water supply has been severe, he said, but not like the wake-up call farmers got last year.

“So last year was really tough, especially because we weren’t expecting the cuts in our allocation midseason, and so that was very difficult,” Richards said. “One — if you can call it an advantage — one advantage we have this year is that we knew up front that (irrigation districts) were going to be conservative and not over-allocate.“

Typically, North Unit patrons like Richards’ Fox Hollow Ranch could expect to receive up to 2.5 acre-feet of water — enough to cover 2.5 acres in a foot of water — per acre of land during the summer season. Last year, they got just 0.8 acre-feet. This year’s allocation was 0.45 acre-feet, though that’s increased slightly since then.

Agricultural irrigation is, by far, the largest use of water in the Deschutes Basin. Central Oregon’s cities, even with fast-paced population growth and development in the last two decades, use just 2% of the Upper Deschutes Basin’s water rights, according to a 2019 study. Agriculture makes up 86%.

For some farmers, the reduced allocations have forced them to leave bare up to 70% of their acreage, while others have closed up shop entirely, Richards said. It’s adding to a continuing trend of Oregon losing its farms: The number of mid- and large-sized farms like Richards’ in the state has been steadily decreasing for the last two decades, and the state lost more than an entire Portland Metro Area of farmland between 2012 and 2017, according to the latest federal agricultural census.

Richards doesn’t plan to leave, though. Instead, he and other farmers are making changes in attempt to cope with the dwindling water allocations.

In addition to a drip irrigation system, which Richards estimates use about 40% less water, the farm’s taken a novel step to conserve water when starting the lifecycle of some of its seed crops. While those crops would traditionally be started in the summer with overhead drip irrigation, Richards is taking a gamble by starting those seeds with drip irrigation right away. The risks are the higher cost of installing the drip irrigation system and the possibility the seeds might not survive the winter (as happened with 40 acres of parsley he tried it on last year), but the potential benefit is the reduction in the amount of water needed in the long run.

Richards has also made tough economic choices to reduce water use. In a normal year, about 15% of his acres would be used to grow a low-value, lower-water hay like barley or pea mix. But this year, it’s almost half of what they grow, to ensure they can grow something instead of running the risk of losing more water-intensive crops.

The financial cost of that switch: Richards in a normal year might expect $2,000 to $2,500 in revenue per acre. But those lower-water crops like barley and pea mix generally return, at best $600 an acre — and they can’t take advantage of wheat prices that are sky-high due to a handful of global market factors.

While FOX HOLLOW’s efforts have reduced the farm’s water consumption, many have carried financial costs.

Richards said it’s not a sustainable position long-term. He sees two options: Either the drought will let up, or fallow fields will become a more common sight.

“If we stay at that half-a-foot allocation, you just can’t farm all that ground,” Richards said. “So if you drive around now, there’s just a lot of ground that’s just idle, not being farmed — that will become the new norm, and what that means is that there might be some consolidation, there might be some young farmers that decide it’s not worth continuing to try and move on and do something else.”

-Zack Demars

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