Guest column: Irrigation modernization needed to save the river

May 6, 2018
Guest column: Irrigation modernization needed to save the river

The Deschutes River is in crisis. A hundred years ago, the river was dammed and diverted in order to irrigate the desert and entice settlers to Oregon. Just like the dirt roads in downtown Bend that are pictured in old photos, the dams and canals were part of the infrastructure that enabled development. All of our lives today are directly linked to that era and the opportunities it created.

But managing the river primarily for irrigation has taken a profound toll. The Deschutes once teemed with life and was renowned for its blue ribbon fishery. In little more than a century, the river has been transformed from a flourishing ecosystem to a highly altered, managed system with greatly diminished habitat for native fish and wildlife.

In 1996, 17 parties, including the governor, Deschutes County commissioners, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, federal and state agencies and three irrigation districts in Central Oregon all signed the Upper Deschutes River Wild and Scenic River Management Plan.

The creation of the plan was triggered when the Upper Deschutes was designated a federal Wild and Scenic River in 1988, 30 years ago. Eight resource goals were identified to protect and enhance the Upper Deschutes. Each is dependent on having adequate streamflow in order to achieve them. One of the goals describes well the altered condition of the river that still persists today. It calls for “changing the character of the winter scenery to reduce the impression that the tide has gone out.” The management plan also emphatically states that, “The goal of enhancing streamflows will only occur to the extent the irrigation districts’ ability to deliver irrigation water is maintained, if not enhanced.”

If we want to bring the goals of the management plan to fruition and return the Upper Deschutes to a healthy ecosystem, we must work with irrigation districts to reduce the amount of water diverted from the river while still meeting the needs of farmers. As river advocates, we’re working in partnership with irrigation for the sake of the river, agriculture, and our communities. We have a vision of a future in which water is managed wisely and shared equitably so that fish, farms and families can all thrive.

In order to fulfill that vision, we have to use all of the tools available to us for conserving water. Currently about half of the water diverted from the river is lost through canal seepage and evaporation. Modernizing irrigation district operations is key to freeing up water in order to restore streamflows to the river. Open canals are inefficient, obsolete, dangerous and wasteful. Piping canals conserves that water and also makes other conservation measures more viable and affordable. These include the use of voluntary market tools and implementing more efficient farming practices.

We need to put all of the above strategies to work as soon as possible, because the price we pay as a community for continuing current irrigation operations is the health of Deschutes River itself. It’s an unnecessary toll that we all pay every day of every year.

The creators of the Wild and Scenic River management plan knew that broad-based community support is essential if the resource goals are to be realized. Public participation is not just a nice option. It’s crucial if we want the Deschutes River to once again be a healthy, thriving ecosystem.

The Deschutes River is in crisis. The river can’t speak for itself; it needs us to do that on its behalf. Make the connection between modernizing century-old irrigation systems and restoring flow in the river. Then speak out in support of irrigation modernization for the sake of the river. Because we are our river’s people, and our river needs us now.

— Gail Snyder is the executive director and co-founder of Coalition for the Deschutes.

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