Group hopes to study long-term water demand, supply

January 2, 2014
Group hopes to study long-term water demand, supply

Deschutes Basin study would examine impacts of climate change and ecological benefits of water conservation

By Hillary Borrud

A coalition of city officials, irrigation districts and conservation groups hopes to study the future of water supply and demand in the Deschutes Basin, with help from a new state water program.

Members of the group say a new study could lead to major changes in water use in the basin. For example, the study would provide the basis for more efficiency projects, such as the piping of porous irrigation canals, which might result in more water left in streams to benefit plants and animals.

The Basin Study Work Group is seeking $1.5 million in state and federal grants, and Oregon Water Resources Department Director Phillip C. Ward recently lent his support to the proposal.

“The basin stakeholders have made great strides to collaboratively address irrigation, municipal, instream and other water needs through water conservation and efficiency projects, a groundwater mitigation program, and an active instream leasing and transfer program,” Ward wrote in a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation last month. “Despite these efforts, demand for water in the Deschutes Basin still exceeds supply and further work is necessary to meet instream and out-of-stream needs.”

The state Legislature passed a bill in 2013 to create a new water supply development account, with a specific reference to the Deschutes Basin study as a potential recipient of money from this fund. The Basin Study Work Group hopes to leverage state support to obtain a $750,000 federal grant from the Bureau of Reclamation. Racquel Rancier, senior policy coordinator for the Oregon Water Resources Department, wrote in an email that “we expect to have funds to match the Bureau of Reclamation’s costs, which could be up to $750,000 over several years.”

Ryan Houston, executive director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, said cities and irrigation districts have an idea of how much water they need in order to serve drinking water and agricultural needs, but conservationists do not know exactly how much water various species need in order to thrive in specific areas of the basin. For example, Houston said “it is less clear how much water we need to have a redband trout fishery in Sunriver.” Houston hopes the study could help answer those questions.

On approximately 60 miles of the Deschutes River from Wickiup Reservoir to Bend, there is currently too little water in the winter to justify major investments in habitat restoration, Houston said. That could change if a study leads to efficiency projects that leave more water in the river. “Once the water is instream, from our perspective, we’re looking at it as a really important opportunity to then engage in all types of habitat restoration projects,” Houston said.

Steve Johnson, manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District and a member of the work group, said the study would examine water supply and demand at least 20 years into the future. The study would cover the basin from the Upper Deschutes River to Lake Billy Chinook, and it would consider the impacts of climate change on water supply.

“The status quo will have to change in order to meet the supply-and-demand scenarios of the future,” Johnson said. Climate change will result in earlier snowmelt — with significant melting shifting from June to May — and that could mean changes to the current water storage system, Johnson said. “So as irrigation district manager, that’s something I think about,” Johnson said. “The good news for our basin is the overall precipitation is projected to be neutral, or plus or minus 5 percent.”

Kyle Gorman, south central region manager with the Oregon Water Resources Department, said a similar study was done in the Yakima Basin in Washington, and one is underway now in the Klamath Basin. The local work group will learn this year whether it will receive the Bureau of Reclamation grant, and if it is successful, the study would begin in 2015.

— Reporter: 541-617-7829,

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