Guest Column: Lake Billy Chinook project holds promise for all

October 24, 2021
Guest Column: Lake Billy Chinook project holds promise for all

In the Deschutes River Basin, there is almost always more demand for water than there is available supply. Whether it’s water to support fish and wildlife, irrigate productive farmlands, enable our growing towns and cities or sustain the rich cultural traditions of area Indian tribes, the more water we have in our basin, the better.

This past summer only drove the point home once again. With abnormally hot and dry conditions, water shortages were commonplace — particularly for farmers in North Unit Irrigation District. While they are among the most efficient users of water in the basin, the water rights that serve them are also the most junior.

Farmers and ranchers in the Deschutes Basin have experienced shortages in the past and are well aware of the potential for continued and more severe drought conditions in the future. Add on the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, and all basin stakeholders know that the challenge we collectively face is figuring out how to make the most of the water we have.

It’s why North Unit signed on to the Habitat Conservation Plan. Not only does it set the course for improving instream flows in basin streams and rivers for the benefit of federally protected fish and wildlife, but it also puts in motion a 30-year cooperative effort among the basin’s irrigation districts to make the most of the water resources we manage, not just for farmers and ranchers, but for fish and wildlife, municipal and tribal purposes as well.

This is also the backdrop for North Unit’s most recent effort, to allow a certain amount of water it would otherwise be entitled to store, release and divert on the Deschutes and Crooked Rivers for irrigation to instead be kept instream until it reaches Lake Billy Chinook much farther down in the basin. At that point, the water would be pumped back up and into North Unit’s delivery system. The project has the potential to be a game changer for fish and wildlife, as instream flows past North Unit’s usual diversion points are not only enhanced, but also the flows may be timed to maximize ecological benefits. Meanwhile, the project offers a long-term solution to North Unit’s water supply challenges. The concept was derived from years of study, funded by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Critics have been quick to point out that it’s just another expensive water project with too many unknowns. But here’s what we do know. The project is premised on improving instream flows and water quality in the Deschutes and Crooked rivers. If the project can’t deliver on environmental benefits, it won’t happen.

The project is also aimed at making water available to North Unit, to which it would otherwise be entitled absent all the efforts being made to enhance minimum flows below Wickiup Dam and below its pumps on the Crooked River. This is not a “water grab” as it has been described by some, but an effort to expand the uses and multiply the benefits of the same, limited amount of water that has always been available to North Unit. And finally, North Unit won’t proceed without the buy-in from those it works closely with in the basin, including not only the other districts, but the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Portland General Electric and others.

Whether the Lake Billy Chinook project will move forward is yet to be seen. But it’s exactly the sort of project that should be explored. It’s a project that acknowledges a fundamental premise — that we need to get the most out of the limited water supply we have in the Deschutes basin in the face of ever-growing demands. North Unit looks forward to continuing to explore this and other projects that would help secure our water future for years to come.

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