Editorial: Collaborate, don't litigate, the problems on the Deschutes

September 22, 2015
Editorial: Collaborate, don't litigate, the problems on the Deschutes

The courts may become a venue for a war over water in the Deschutes River Basin. Two environmental groups — WaterWatch of Oregon and the Center for Biological Diversity — have said they might sue over water management.

The proposed lawsuits are votes of confidence in the courts to safeguard important wildlife habitat. But the critical problems in the basin are far broader and more complex. The problems are better solved through collaboration than narrow litigation.

The Deschutes basin has many interconnected challenges. There are perhaps three critical areas. First, the flows in the Upper Deschutes are erratic, going from 20 cubic feet per second to 1,800 cubic feet per second throughout the year. That’s not healthy for wildlife and creates related problems with erosion and sediment. Historically, the flow of the river was more consistent year-round — from about 600 cubic feet per second to 800 cubic feet per second.

The second challenge has to do with agricultural needs. For instance, the North Unit Irrigation District has a junior water right and has trouble getting the water it needs to irrigate nearly 59,000 acres of farmland in Jefferson County. Some years it doesn’t get enough.

The third is about water for cities. Municipal governments need to have a reliable path to secure mitigation credits to ensure their communities have sufficient water in the future. The path doesn’t really exist now.

The range of solutions for the basin will likely include more piping and water storage. The existing 1938 agreement between irrigation districts about how the reservoirs work could need to be altered. Also, there are federal rules that may need to be changed. Wickiup and Crane Prairie reservoirs can currently be used for irrigation. That’s it. More flexibility may be needed.

So what the basin needs is an overarching look at all of its challenges and an analysis of possible solutions. It is actually already happening. About $1.5 million has been committed to a study to look at climate change, water demand and water supply. The Deschutes River Conservancy, irrigation districts, WaterWatch and federal and state agencies are all working on it. The goal is to identify solutions, set priorities and estimate price tags.

Lawsuits aren’t going to make it rain or snow more. They may lead to legal diktats that improve slivers of the basin, but they will be blind to the problem’s depth. Central Oregon needs solutions for the entire basin.

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