Eastern Oregon river could provide framework for water sharing

March 12, 2018
Eastern Oregon river could provide framework for water sharing

Speaker coming to Bend carries lessons from the Lostine River

A 31-mile tributary in a remote part of Eastern Oregon could carry lessons about managing water in the Deschutes Basin.

The Coalition for the Deschutes, a Bend-based nonprofit that focuses on protecting the Deschutes River, will host a presentation Wednesday by Rob Kirschner, general counsel for the Freshwater Trust. Kirschner will be speaking about the conservation organization’s work on the Lostine River, and how those efforts can be applied to Central Oregon’s iconic river.

“We wanted to step outside Central Oregon, where there’s so much baggage, so much history,” said Gail Snyder, co-founder and executive director of the Coalition for the Deschutes.

Following Kirschner’s presentation, Natasha Bellis, program manager for the Deschutes River Conservancy, will talk about the nonprofit’s work on water marketing — transferring water between users — in the Deschutes Basin. Both presenters will answer questions after the event.

“The Lostine is different from the Deschutes, but there are some lessons we can glean,” Bellis said.

The Lostine River is a relatively small tributary of the Wallowa River that snakes through northeastern Oregon to the west of Joseph. Kirschner said the river dealt with low flows from irrigation diversions for years, and the river often ran nearly dry in late summer. The low flows affected summer Chinook salmon runs in late August and September, making it a challenge for the fish to travel upstream to spawn.

Kirschner said the Freshwater Trust, which has offices in Oregon, California and Idaho, worked with the approximately 100 farmers drawing water from the river. In 2005, they settled on an agreement to maintain a minimum flow — which began at 15 cubic feet per second but has since been elevated to 18 — that the river must meet or exceed during late August and September.

Kirschner added that farmers are collectively paid $164,000 if flows meet that standard, though the amount per farmer varies. Over the past three years, farmers earned an additional $116,156 for exceeding the required flows, which could be allocated toward projects to improve irrigation efficiency, according to Kirschner.

“In the 13 years we’ve been doing this, we’ve never had any problems,” he said.

On the Deschutes River, stakeholders have been looking for ways to share water more effectively between users for years. Bellis said the current system can leave irrigation districts with junior water rights with less water than they need, which can force them to aggressively draw down reservoirs in Central Oregon.

She added that sharing water back and forth is one of the water-saving methods identified in the ongoing Upper Deschutes Basin Study, along with piping irrigation canals to reduce evaporation and working with farmers to conserve water. A draft of the basin study is expected to be released in July.

Additionally, Central Oregon Irrigation District received a $400,000 grant last year from the Bureau of Reclamation, designed to help irrigation districts set up a comprehensive approach to sharing and loaning water.

Snyder noted that the Deschutes River is very different geologically from the Lostine, and sharing water between users would likely take a different form.

However, Kirschner added that the culture of working together on the Lostine has helped the region be successful, and provides a framework for Central Oregon to find a solution that works for both farmers and fish.

“Working together and building trust is the key to all of this,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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