High water frustrates homeowners

August 20, 2012
High water frustrates homeowners

Irrigation releases cause flooding along Deschutes in south county

By Holly Pablo

When Donna Pensinger looks out her kitchen window, she's greeted by the Deschutes River. That's not as great as it sounds, she said. The water laps against the driveway and garage. It's nearly approaching the back deck.

“It's literally like I live on the edge of a lake," said Pensinger, of Albany, who is building a home at Wood Duck Court in the Oregon Water Wonderland subdivision south of Sunriver. “You can probably ride a raft from my house right now out to the dock to get to the river."

Pensinger and other riverfront property owners worry about rising water in the Deschutes River flooding their homes. She has owned the parcel for five years and says flooding is a new problem for the south county.

The flooding she refers to is extra water released from the Wickiup Reservoir through the Deschutes River to irrigate 100,000 acres of farmland in Deschutes and Jefferson counties. It dates back to irrigation laws established in the 1940s.

“If it was raining, and the river was flooding, I would expect flooding," Pensinger said. “But this is man-induced flooding. So the question is, 'How are we going to solve this? How are the farmers going to get their water and not flood our houses?'"

The Wonderland community includes about 1,048 homesites. Nearly 200 are riverfront properties, including 30 at Wood Duck Court, which is a small island surrounded by a canal. Not all riverfront properties are affected, according to a Water Wonderland board member.

Homeowners experiencing flooding will likely need to wait it out for now. Irrigation managers expect the water levels to naturally fall after Labor Day, when temperatures, and the demand for water, drop.

The Deschutes River below the Wickiup Reservoir flowed steadily between Aug. 12 and Friday at 1,700 cubic feet per second, according to the Bureau of Reclamation's online hydrograph. The overall average summer flow is between 1,400 and 1,800 cubic feet per second.

The water flow may be a bit higher than average because of recent heat waves. The demand for water has been higher to tackle the dry spell, but it's not record-setting at any rate, Johnson said.

“We're expecting that a function of development like boat docks (and) changes in vegetation along the river are somehow impeding the velocity of the flows and making them behave differently as they have in the recent past," said Steve Johnson, manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District.

Weed growth displacing water is possibly causing higher water levels, he said.

“There's no magic solution, and we don't really know why these same water levels are causing the problems they are now," Johnson said. “Nobody is purposely trying to flood people. In the century past, these problems didn't exist."

Kyle Gorman, the south-central region manager of the Oregon Water Resources Department, said the irrigation system was designed long before settlers began building homes on the floodplain. It's essentially the basis for Central Oregon's agricultural livelihood, he said.

Laws governing the distribution of irrigation were established in the 1940s, around the time the federal government created Wickiup Reservoir. The canals are operated by local irrigation districts and the Deschutes Basin watermaster controls the water levels.

It's a delicate balance that shows that the county may need to review future home development along the flood zone, Johnson said.

Deschutes Basin watermaster Jeremy Giffin was not available for comment.

Pensinger acknowledges building in a flood zone, but disagrees with critics who argue against it.

“When you buy property in a floodplain, you don't expect it to flood," Pensinger said. “It's a fixable problem. Let's give it attention, let's see who's going to do what and fix it before next season. We can solve this before next summer."

Gorman said there are ongoing efforts to improve the stream flows. He encourages homeowners to reach out to the Water Resources Department.

“The best thing people can do is call our office and understand why the river does what it does," Gorman said. “It's a fascinating history."

— Reporter; 541-633-2160, hpablo@bendbulletin.com

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