Editorial: Healing the Deschutes is about more than piping

October 23, 2019
Editorial: Healing the Deschutes is about more than piping

By the Bulletin Editorial Board

The Deschutes River can flow near Bend at a roiling 980,000 gallons a minute in the summer. But those spectacular summer flows can tell a misleading tale about the river.

The changes that have been made to the river to provide irrigation — dams, reservoirs and canals — can degrade habitat.

Above Benham Falls in the winter, flows can get so low that fish are stranded. The summer has its own share of problems. About 90% of the river’s flow is actually diverted near Bend in the summer for irrigation. Providing water to irrigate crops is not a bad thing. The diversions, though, from May to September can lower river flows below Bend to the point where higher water temperatures hurt fish habitat.

The region’s eight irrigation districts and the city of Prineville have been working on a habitat conservation plan to minimize impacts from what they do on the spotted frog, bull trout and other species.

The solution most people talk about is canal piping. More piping should mean less water needs to be diverted. Piping costs — paid primarily by federal dollars going to irrigations districts — could easily reach more than $240 million over the next several years.

If you want the most bang for your buck to help the Deschutes River, the best place to invest the money actually can be something else: providing market incentives to use water differently. Just look at the numbers. The estimated average cost per acre foot for canal piping is $5,000. The estimated average cost per acre foot for market incentives is $400 per acre foot. (An acre foot of water is the amount of water to cover one acre of land in one foot of water.)

So what are these market incentives? They can be things like temporary or permanent leasing of water rights. For instance, a hobby farmer could realize he or she doesn’t need every drop. A farmer could voluntarily use less. A farmer could switch to more efficient irrigation methods. A farmer could shift some of his or her water so it goes where it is needed more — back into the river or for use by the seed farmers downstream near Madras.

Fixing that is not a simple switcheroo. Irrigation district water systems are not set up to easily transfer water around like this. They don’t have the infrastructure. The state legal and irrigation district regulatory framework also gets in the way. The “current policy for irrigation districts in the basin is to not reduce their water right certificates by permanently transferring water instream; many districts also have constraints on instream leasing,” according to a final draft of the Upper Deschutes River Basin Study.

Don’t think for a moment that irrigation districts can’t get more efficient. Of course every district has different challenges, history and infrastructure. Consider, though, this contrast: A 2014 water use assessment estimated that North Unit Irrigation delivers an average of 1.8 acre feet per acre to the farm, while Central Oregon Irrigation District delivers 3.7 acre feet per acre to the farm.

The question that won’t go away is: Where oh where will the money come from to improve the Deschutes Basin irrigation system? But we should also be asking: When oh when will the government and irrigation districts make changes so water can be more easily shifted where it needs to be?

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