Habitat Conservation Plan advances to final stages

November 10, 2020
Habitat Conservation Plan advances to final stages

The Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan, which will impact the flow rates of the Deschutes River for at least three decades, passed a key hurdle as it moves through the approval process by federal regulators.

The conservation plan, along with an environmental impact statement, was published Friday in the Federal Register, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. What remains of the approval process is a 30-day waiting period and a permit decision, per requirements by the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The plan, developed by eight irrigation districts and the city of Prineville, is outlined in a sweeping 753-page document that describes requirements for the districts to receive an Incidental Take Permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The permit and the conservation plan shield the irrigation districts from litigation by environmental opponents, provided they are implementing the conservation measures outlined in the plan. Without them, the districts could be open to lawsuits for the “incidental take” of a threatened species as a result of their operations. Species covered include the Oregon spotted frog, bull trout, steelhead, and sockeye salmon.

In an earlier emailed statement, Bridget Moran, field supervisor for the fish and wildlife service in Bend, said a final permit decision is expected by the end of the year.

The conservation project affects not only Wickiup Reservoir and the Deschutes River, but other rivers, streams, and reservoirs in Central Oregon. Ochoco Reservoir, Prineville Reservoir, Whychus Creek, the Crooked River, and Crescent Lake Reservoir are among the affected areas.

“The HCP includes some significant commitments by the districts,” said Mike Britton, general manager for North Unit Irrigation District, one of the eight districts to apply for the permits. “I believe we can obtain the goals we’ve set out to reach as long as we can continue to do the projects that are the cornerstone of the HCP.”

The big-ticket item in the conservation plan is a timeline for the increase in flow rates for the Deschutes. These rates include a minimum flow of 100 cubic feet per second in years one through seven during winter, then 300 cfs during winter in years eight through 12. Finally, the flow in the Deschutes is expected to be 400 to 500 cfs in winter from years 13 through 30.

The conservation project would start in 2021, so by the fall of 2028, the flow of the Deschutes River should increase to 300 cfs.

In addition, the North Unit Irrigation District, which operates the Wickiup Dam, will increase the flow rate to no less than 600 cfs by April 1 each year, and maintain those flows for the entire month of April to support Oregon spotted frog breeding.

The conservation plan also calls for a winter flow rate in the Deschutes River of at least 250 cfs below Bend to support habitat for fish covered by the plan.

Increasing the flow of water in winter, especially in the Upper Deschutes, is an attempt to moderate the large swings that occur in autumn and spring as the irrigation districts dial back and then increase the flow of water to accommodate the needs of the farming community.

The rapid swings of water in a river that historically had an even flow has widened the Deschutes channel, eroded its banks, and washed away vegetation. Damage to the river has degraded breeding areas for the Oregon spotted frog, and contributed to its decline in the Upper Deschutes.

In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the spotted frog threatened under the endangered species act, a decision that confirmed the need for improved flows in the Deschutes River. That decision resulted in an increase to 100 cfs winter release from Wickiup and timelines for completion of the HCP.

To help address the degradation of wildlife habitat, the conservation plan also includes annual funding of $150,000 to support restoration of the Upper Deschutes Basin for the Oregon spotted frog. Conservation funds are also available for Crooked River and Whychus Creek, for habitat restoration or in-steam leasing.

Ben Gordon, executive director for Central Oregon LandWatch, said the conservation fund is a positive step forward, but he remains cautious about the potential for improvement.

“Until the flow regime is improved it will be difficult to accomplish the significant restoration of channel and vegetation needed by the Oregon spotted frog,” said Gordon. “It appears as though they are simply trying to sustain the meager existing populations of frogs, rather than improve frog populations on the Upper Deschutes.”

Measures to help the spotted frog are also active at Crane Prairie Reservoir, which is held at a constant water level for several months in the spring and summer and then only drafted down 2 feet in elevation in late summer, specifically to benefit the frog.

“This is a significant change from historic practice where water levels could fluctuate 6 to 8 feet in a year,” said Kyle Gorman, region manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department. “This measure is being implemented now and has been for several years.”

The requirements of the conservation plan have been difficult to swallow for many in Central Oregon’s farming community, as they result in less water for use by the irrigation districts. That’s because water that flows out of Wickiup Reservoir in winter isn’t used by irrigators. Instead of being stored, the water flows to Lake Billy Chinook and eventually the Columbia River.

Farmers and ranchers have already been hit hard by drought and low snowpack in recent years, forcing many to fallow large portions of their farms, causing economic hardship.

The irrigation districts intend to make up for the lost water mainly by piping their canals — around 40% of water is lost through the porous canals that snake their way around Central Oregon. Significant costs of piping will be covered with federal grants, according to the conservation plan.

The districts will “move forward projects that free up water that can then be moved around the basin to make the most efficient and beneficial use of the resource,” said Britton.

Canal piping projects currently under construction include a 7.9-mile pipeline from Redmond to Smith Rock. That project will cost $33 million and reduce water loss seepage by 30 cubic feet per second.

Gorman, of the Water Resources Department, said the plan “has a solid foundational analysis and a sound approach for habitat improvements.”

“It also tells us there is a lot of work to be done to meet the goals as described in the plan,” he added.

But not everyone agrees with what is outlined in the conservation plan, and negative reaction to the document’s publishing in the Federal Register has been swift.

“The Deschutes River is a national treasure and deserves better,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director Center for Biological Diversity. “By preserving existing flows for the next seven years, this plan leaves the Oregon spotted frog, fish, and the river itself high and dry.”

Other critics of the plan argue that instead of spending money on expensive piping projects, the irrigation districts, especially those with senior water rights, need to focus on on-farm water conservation, such as transitioning from flood irrigation to water-efficient sprinkler systems.

“We can no longer afford wasteful irrigation practices on urban lots and hobby farms,” said Tod Heisler, rivers program director at Central Oregon LandWatch. “Eliminating such practices is key to providing more water for fish, frogs, and real farmers.”

Litigation against the decision to approve the conservation project may be on its way.

“We’ll of course need to evaluate the record of decision and biological opinion that will be out in 30 days,” said Patrick Sullivan, the Center for Biological Diversity’s media director. “But we are likely to challenge this in court.”

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