Editorial: A plan to improve the Deschutes River

October 28, 2020
Editorial: A plan to improve the Deschutes River

Bulletin Editorial Board

Humans can wreak havoc on the Deschutes River. The irrigation system built to harness it for farming distorts it.

River flows fluctuate dramatically and unnaturally. About half the water conveyed through open ditches never gets where it was intended to go. A drought isn’t helping, either.

The Deschutes can look extraordinary, but it is not healthy. The threatened status of creatures that make the river their home — the Oregon spotted frog, bull trout and steelhead — are just one sign.

Next week the spotlight will turn again to the debate over how best to manage the river. A plan is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register that will be a road map of how irrigation and other water management practices will be structured for the next 30 years. It’s officially a habitat conservation plan, submitted by the region’s eight irrigation districts and the city of Prineville.

Does it get it right?

The plan doesn’t cover everything. It’s designed to allow the irrigation districts and the city to continue to do what they do without getting in trouble for hurting those three threatened species. They have had to promise to take conservation measures.

For instance, flows in the winter below Wickiup Reservoir have been maybe 100 cubic feet per second. The goal is to get that to 400-500 cubic feet per second. That should improve habitat. Another aspect of the plan is that the irrigation districts will contribute $150,000 a year toward habitat enhancement projects, such as planting vegetation along the banks.

Conservation groups, such as Central Oregon LandWatch, criticized earlier versions of the plan as not doing enough. Tod Heisler of Central Oregon LandWatch told us he doesn’t expect the final draft will be much of an improvement. He has been frustrated that irrigation districts are too fixed on moving ahead with expensive piping projects. He would rather see more effort put into conservation on farms and more incentives developed to encourage more efficient water use.

We don’t expect the plan will “fix” the river. It will help. Fundamentally, flows need to be improved and more regular. The plan does move things in that direction.

If you are interested or concerned, look for an announcement about the plan next week and for an opportunity to comment. Once it is published, there will only be 30 days before the federal government makes a decision.

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