Deschutes water bank aims to restore streamflows, get farmers water they need, secure water for future municipal needs

October 26, 2023
Deschutes water bank aims to restore streamflows, get farmers water they need, secure water for future municipal needs

Note from the Deschutes River Conservancy on the article below:

We appreciate the Columbia Basin Bulletin’s recent article that highlights the initiatives of the Deschutes River Conservancy and our partners to balance over-appropriated water rights and restore streamflows in the Deschutes River basin.

To clarify a point made in the article, 80% of the unmet water needs in the basin are on the instream side, with insufficient streamflows in critical reaches, while 20% are on the agricultural side, addressing the urgent needs of the farming community.

It’s great to see the raised awareness and collaboration between various stakeholders, including the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Oregon, irrigators, river advocates, and local organizations, in devising strategies to ensure sustainable water use, protect fish habitats, and secure water for future municipal needs. We also want to uplift our key restoration partners that made the Whychus Creek work summarized in the article possible- specifically the UPPER DESCHUTES WATERSHED COUNCIL and the Deschutes Land Trust.



Deschutes River basin water rights were over-appropriated more than 100 years ago and today some 86 percent of the river’s total water is used for irrigation while only 12 percent of the water is appropriated for instream flows and just 2 percent for municipal water, according to Kate Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy.

Low stream flows have had a negative impact on central Oregon’s Deschutes River basin salmon and steelhead, as well as resident fish, such as the lower river’s famed redside rainbow trout. Now that Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs are in the midst of a reintroduction program upstream of their jointly-owned Pelton-Round Butte Dam complex, the health of the river is even more important so that Chinook and sockeye salmon, and steelhead can spawn naturally.

Fitzpatrick updated the Northwest Power and Conservation Council members at their meeting in Redmond, OR, Oct. 12. The Conservancy was formed in 1996 by the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, irrigators in the basin and environmentalists. Its mission is to restore streamflow and improve water quality in the Deschutes River basin, which includes the Deschutes, Metolius and Crooked rivers, as well as Whychus Creek, all in the upper and middle Deschutes basin, and Trout Creek located downstream of the Pelton-Round-Butte Complex.

According to an Oct. 4 Council Memorandum , the Council and Bonneville Power administration established the Columbia Basin Water Transactions Program in 2002 as way to help put water back into Columbia River basin tributaries where flow is a limiting factor to healthy populations of anadromous or resident fish. While the CBWTP is administered through a partnership between BPA and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, it relies on local organizations to acquire and monitor water rights transactions. These “qualified local entities” may be states, Tribes, or nonprofits. For the Deschutes basin, the qualified local entity is the Deschutes River Conservancy.

The Conservancy has leveraged “significant match funding to handle transactions as well as to complement and increase the benefits of other habitat actions for resident and anadromous fish. Their work has been critical to recovery objectives for Mid-Columbia steelhead, and for enhancing climate and ecosystem resiliency in the Deschutes basin,” the Memo says.

One of those funding sources came about early last year when the Conservancy received $1.3 million as part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s $20.5 million package for a suite of 13 long-term drought resiliency projects in five Western states. The Deschutes Basin was the only project site to be selected in the Northwest.

The funding is being used by the Conservancy, its irrigation district partners in the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, and its municipal partners within the Central Oregon Cities Organization, to formalize and operate a Water Bank that can deploy a suite of time and resource-efficient mechanisms to move water between users and the river, to meet the most pressing demands. The water bank provides a cash payment to water users to forego the use of their water to add water to the river. The formal establishment of a comprehensive bank builds on and ties together the extensive water management work already happening in the basin.


The Bank relies wholly on voluntary actions and is locally controlled by water bank partners, including the irrigation districts that hold the majority of the water rights in the basin (just eight irrigation districts hold 80 percent of the water rights). Bank activities will be focused on restoring critical stream flows, assuring that farmers get the water they need to grow crops, and securing future water for growing urban communities.

The grant also funds critical elements of drought management, including enhanced metering and monitoring of water diversions, the ability to better forecast climate conditions and drought impacts on reservoir and river levels, and a strategy to tie these forecasts to needed responses in an accessible and web-based platform. For example, irrigation districts are aggressively piping canals to conserve water and the partners are funding and implementing on-farm efficiency projects that save additional water.

The Conservancy also has an Annual Instream Water Leasing Program that restores stream flows, and the Deschutes Groundwater Mitigation Program which provides a framework for cities to secure new water supplies. The market-based tools rely on the use of incentives to allow for water to move on a voluntary basis from less-valued uses to higher-valued uses.

According to Fitzpatrick, the collaboration of (at the time) unlikely partners has enabled the Conservancy to develop relationships and devise creative approaches to keep more water in the river. For more information about the DRC visit

In its 27 years, the Conservancy has restored over 300 cubic feet of river flow to the Deschutes River basin, an area where annual rainfall is typically less than 20 inches, drought is persistent and climate change is presenting a growing challenge, Fitzpatrick said.

The Conservancy success stories include:

In the past, 98 percent of mainstem Deschutes River flows were diverted for irrigation. In one area of the middle Deschutes downstream of Bend, flows were increased due to agreements with irrigators and re-piping from no flow to today’s average 135 cfs.

Every two out of three years between 1960 and 1999, Whychus Creek, which flows through Sisters, OR and into the Deschutes River has run dry. Since 1999, due to a collaboration of irrigators, non-profits, agencies and funders, the creek has maintained year-round flows of at least 43 cubic feet per second with a minimum flow of 23 cfs, Fitzpatrick said. It was a long-term project – 22 projects, actually, that re-piped over 31 miles of irrigation ditching and restored 32 cfs of streamflow was restored to Whychus Creek. Also, by leasing 350 to 400 acres of land, an additional 8 cfs was restored. With instream acquisitions, about 4.5 cfs has been permanently restored.

In total, the Whychus Creek project obtained 10 stream miles and 3,100 total acres of protected area due to land acquisition, all six fish passage barriers were retrofitted or removed, and 6 miles of stream and 385 acres of high-quality habitat were restored, Fitzpatrick said.

Also, diverted flows from the Crooked River had often left just a trickle of water in the river as it passes the cliffs in Smith Rock State Park. But by working with irrigators, some 10,685 acre feet of water has been conserved, mostly since 2012. Tools to achieve the conservation also included water transfers and leasing.

The Conservancy’s goals are to eventually reach flows in the basin that will ensure that 80 percent of the water will go to instream flows and 20 percent to farming, while also providing sufficient water for municipal use. That’s a reversal of the current allocation.

According to Fitzpatrick, the Conservancy with its irrigator partners have improved the basin’s infrastructure using tools like piping irrigation water instead of using open canals in order to prevent water loss due to seeping. In addition, it has worked with irrigators to develop water district agreements, water rights transfers, instream water leasing and mitigation banking. All have resulted in more water left in the river.

In total, Fitzpatrick said, the results of these efforts include:

  • 10 stream miles and 3,100 total acres have been protected via land acquisition;
  • six fish passage barriers have been retrofitted or removed;
  • six miles of stream and 385 acres of high-quality habitat have been restored;
  • piping over 31 miles of open ditches resulting in increased stream flows of 32 cubic feet per second of water;
  • leasing of 350 to 400 acres of fallow farmland annually has put an additional 8 cubic feet per second of water in streams for fish;
  • voluntary water rights transfers by landowners have permanently secured 4.5 cubic feet per second of instream water for the environment.

According to a Council blog, these “examples demonstrate what is possible when voluntary collaborations among landowners, irrigators, and local groups make use of market-based tools and innovative water conservation efforts. In the Deschutes Basin, the Conservancy has proven to be a leader in restoring river health while enabling farmers to continue irrigating their crops.”

View the article online

Further information:
Read a related release from the Northwest Power Conservation Council

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