Deschutes River gets slight boost after piping project

March 1, 2020
Deschutes River gets slight boost after piping project

Deschutes is flowing 5.45% higher this winter but impact is minimal for frogs

By Michael Kohn

The Deschutes River is flowing 5.45% higher this winter due to agreements between two irrigation districts to increase the amount of water flowing from Wickiup Reservoir.

The increase — from 100 cubic feet per second to 105.45 cubic feet per second — is a small step toward a long-range goal from the districts of increasing the flow out of Wickiup in winter to more than 300 cubic feet per second, a target the irrigation districts expect to reach in 10 years, according to Craig Horrell, the Central Oregon Irrigation District manager.

The irrigation districts are working to keep more water in the river to comply with new requirements from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife that call for higher levels to support habitat for the Oregon spotted frog, which has been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 2014.

“While this is an incremental step toward flow goals upwards of 300 cfs in the reach, it demonstrates a successful partnership between COID and North Unit to move water in innovative ways to meet basin water supply needs,” Horrell said in a statement.

The additional water is protected by an instream lease made through agreements between the North Unit Irrigation District and the COID.

The lease was made possible after COID piped a section of its canal network in Bend in 2017. That project cost $5 million and piped 3,000 feet of canal. The piping saved 5 cubic feet per second that had previously been lost to seepage in the open canal.

Oregon spotted frog
COID delivered the saved water to the North Unit Irrigation District through an agreement a year ago. In return, North Unit, which controls the water flows out of Wickiup Reservoir, released an equivalent amount of water into the Deschutes River.

Bridget Moran, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the difference between 100 cubic feet per second and 105 cubic feet per second is negligible for the health of the river, but over time, additional releases will help to restore flows necessary for the spotted frog.

“There is not one level we can point to regarding the habitat needs for the Oregon spotted frog,” said Moran in an email. “The frog has different needs at different life stages. For example, breeding, rearing, over-wintering. Each of these life stages needs a suitable habitat for success.”

Moran said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a goal of optimizing the water releases for all stages of the spotted frog’s life.

As it currently stands, the amount of water to be released from Wickiup will increase to 600 cubic feet per second by April 1 to benefit the spotted frog, according to requirements by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

More piping ahead
COID is planning to pipe another section of its canal network, with groundbreaking expected in October. That project, which will take two years to build, is expected to add an additional 30 cubic feet per second to the river.

“That will make a huge difference,” said Horrell. “The reason why we like piping is because the water savings are instant. It’s conserved water from those losses in those pipes and it instantly goes to help the river. We need that today.”

Not everyone is on board with piping the canals as a first option. Some say it’s too expensive and the funds are better used if put toward financial incentives for water users to improve water efficiency.

“When COID patrons become more efficient, North Unit farmers and the Deschutes River will get more water,” said Tod Heisler, Rivers Conservation Program Director for the Central Oregon LandWatch, a nonprofit conservation group.

Hobby farmers
COID patrons, who live mainly around Bend, Redmond and Alfalfa, differ from water users around Madras. COID patrons occupy smaller farms, usually of less than 10 acres. Most COID patrons are considered hobby farmers because they do not farm for commercial purposes.

Hobby farmers have few financial incentives to upgrade to modern sprinkler systems, which save water but are costly to install and operate.

“Most people are conscious (of water savings) but it comes down to whether or not they have the means to do something,” said Kyle Gorman, region manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department. “People may not have the wherewithal to do it. They have to make do with what they have.”

Heisler says the irrigation districts could do more to save water by simply shifting their focus from piping the canals to providing incentives to farmers to upgrade their irrigation systems. Heisler also recommends piping the privately owned ditches, or laterals, beyond the main canals.

“COID’s submitted plan is not only insufficient for the scope of the problem but it is also exorbitantly expensive in light of the less expensive alternatives available to the district,” said Heisler.

Market-based strategies
Market-based strategies — such as water transfers and sales between the districts — will save more water at a significantly lower cost compared to piping, Heisler said.

“Market-based incentives such as temporary leasing and permanent transfers are tested and effective approaches to conserving water for both the river and irrigation,” said Heisler.

Horrell, the COID general manager, says his district is pursuing water marketing strategies with a grant from the Bureau of Reclamation. Water marketing strategies will work “hand-in-hand” with the canal piping, he said.

“It’s not a one or the other approach,” said Horrell.

Gorman, the Water Resources Department region manager, says doing on-farm improvements is needed, but this may only be practical if it’s done in conjunction with piping the canals.

Piping a canal increases options in how water patrons can use the water, especially if the pipe is pressurized, Gorman said. Pressurized water can be metered and provided immediately.

“You can turn the water on and off. That is an instantaneous change at the source, that is when you can get more creative,” said Gorman. “Many more opportunities open up when you have a delivery system that is in a pipe. It just completely changes how water can be managed.”

On-farm is critical
Horrell says COID is also paying attention to making on-farm improvements.

“We’ve focused on the piping because that is the quickest way to put water in the river and its where the grant money is coming from,” said Horrell. “However, we do know that we have to have it all work together to improve everything, so on-farm is paralleling now. Now that we have the piping going, on-farm is becoming critical to us to implement as well.”

But there are challenges, because the district has no legal right to force a patron to be more water-efficient, Horrell said.

“We are trying to find out how to incentivize (irrigation upgrades) because on-farm is private,” said Horrell. “I can’t go and tell someone they have to change from flood irrigation to a more efficient system.”

Horrell said it can cost $5,000 to upgrade an irrigation system on a 10-acre farm, and he says he is working with farmers to provide low-interest loans to pay for the upgrades, with matching grants.

“Those are the big picture things we are looking at,” said Horrell. “We are committed to seeking and implementing conservation practices and measures, and that includes on-farm. It just takes time. It doesn’t go as fast as everyone would like and I wish it could go faster.”

Reporter: 541-617-7818,

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