Guest column: Improving flows in the Deschutes River

August 22, 2017
Guest column: Improving flows in the Deschutes River

For over 20 years, the Central Oregon Irrigation District and its partners have worked diligently to mitigate low flows in the Deschutes River. During that time, we have achieved great success, improving river flows below Bend in summer months, increasing them from as low as 30 cubic feet per second to an average of 133 cfs. With that success, our focus has shifted to the improvement of winter flows in the upper Deschutes River below Wickiup Reservoir.

In order to restore flows below Wickiup Reservoir and provide a reliable water supply, Central Oregon Irrigation District and North Unit Irrigation District (“the districts”) have entered into agreement to improve winter flows below Wickiup, mitigating impacts to threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, including Oregon spotted frog, and improving river health and water availability in the Deschutes Basin.

The districts are working collaboratively with the Deschutes River Conservancy, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Farmer’s Conservation Alliance, Bureau of Reclamation, Oregon Water Resources Department and other Deschutes Basin stakeholders to develop a process to use conserved water to improve flows while keeping the districts whole, sustaining agriculture and the rural lifestyle in the Basin.

In a proactive effort, COID completed a System Improvement Plan in 2016, proposing to pipe its canals and laterals resulting in up to 255 cubic feet per second of conserved water.

Piping leaky irrigation district canals is an important early-phase water conservation approach, making in-district operations more efficient and increasing the opportunities for on-farm irrigation efficiencies and market-based incentive programs.

As piping projects are completed, COID will transport the conserved water through its piped canal to NUID, reducing NUID dependence on Wickiup during the summer months for irrigation, thereby allowing water to pass-through Wickiup during the winter months, increasing the upper Deschutes River flows November through March.

Congress recently appropriated $150 million for the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program in the Fiscal Year 2017 Budget. COID is one of three irrigation districts in the Deschutes Basin that is going to apply for funding from this program to complete water conservation projects.

As funding occurs, COID will complete conserved water projects, piping its delivery system. One hundred percent of the water conserved through piping from the appropriated public funds will be used to restore flows in the Upper and Middle reaches of the Deschutes River, but priority will be given to address flow imbalances in the Upper Deschutes to address the habitat requirements and liabilities associated with the Oregon spotted frog.

COID will deliver the conserved water through its pipe to the end of the COID system and into the NUID system. As a result, NUID will reduce its diversion from the Deschutes River by an amount equal to the conserved water it is receiving from COID. NUID will forgo/release an equal amount of storage from Wickiup during the winter months.

The districts will remain whole and have modernized delivery systems with little waste.

Upper Deschutes River winter flows are anticipated to dramatically increase from 100 cfs to new flow rates determined through a Habitat Conservation Plan Take Permit to be issued by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on July 31, 2019, significantly improving river health and habitat for listed and threatened ESA species, including the Oregon spotted frog.

As stewards of our most precious resource, the goal of the districts is to deliver water efficiently to each of their patrons, while ensuring the needs of the community and the environment are met.

— Craig Horrell is the district manager for the Central Oregon Irrigation District.

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