Increasing winter flows in Deschutes River takes conservation and a reliance on science

October 1, 2021
Increasing winter flows in Deschutes River takes conservation and a reliance on science

The countdown for improved spotted frog habitat in the Deschutes River is on.

In one year, starting October 2022, winter flows of the Deschutes will be bolstered with an additional 30 cubic feet per second of water. That represents a 28% jump over normal winter releases from Wickiup Reservoir.

The surge in winter flows is contingent on Central Oregon Irrigation District completing a $30 million canal-to-pipe water conservation project. District officials promise to deliver the project on time.

Increasing the height of the Deschutes River is critical for the recovery of the Oregon spotted frog, listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2014.

The Upper Deschutes includes overwintering, breeding, and egg-laying habitat for the spotted frog that require higher river levels in winter and less fluctuation during the spring breeding season. The ultimate goal for biologists is to even out the seasonal flow of water, avoid wide swings that can damage frog habitat, and restore the wetland vegetation that is critical to the frog’s survival.

Craig Horrell, Central Oregon Irrigation District manager, said the 30 cfs of additional water made possible by converting canals to pipes is just the start of a grander plan to boost releases by 200 cfs over the next seven years, an amount that is required by the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan.

Horrell says the district has started work on a full environmental impact statement to pipe the remaining 24 miles of canal between Bend and Redmond. An environmental impact statement is required for a federal permit to install the pipe, and federal funding cannot be made available until the district has the permit. The seven other irrigation districts that are part of the habitat conservation plan also need to complete watershed plans in order to access funds.

Horrell said $50 million of federal funding is still available in Oregon for piping projects and more could be on the way if Congress passes President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan .

“We just don’t have the ability to get that without the environmental impact statements or watershed plans done for all the districts,” said Horrell. “But there is money out there.”

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., has been instrumental in increasing funding for irrigation projects. He secured a program increase of $20 million in the 2022 Agriculture Appropriations bill that passed the Senate Appropriations Committee in August. The program is now funded at more than $198 million. Merkley also helped secure an additional $500 million for the program in the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

“Sen. Merkley is working with urgency to deliver resources for irrigators in Central Oregon,” Sara Hottman, a spokesperson for Merkley’s office, wrote in an email. “He talked with irrigators during his town halls this year, and met with them in-person in August, and he understands how desperate their situation is. However, Congress as a whole also has to act in order for the resources that Sen. Merkley appropriated to be delivered.”

Horrell said when the funds are available for the 24-mile stretch between Bend and Redmond, work can be done in stages similar to the current 7.9-mile project between Redmond and Smith Rock. He expects the next environmental impact statement to take two years to complete and that puts construction on track to start in 2024. Smaller projects to help boost water conservation can be done in the meantime.

“We are still doing small piping projects and on-farm work,” said Horrell. “We are still doing all those things and we have money for that, but the large piping will stall out for a couple of years while we do the permitting.”

The clock is ticking for the districts to act. The habitat conservation plan requires a release of 300 cfs by 2028. By 2033, the districts will need to increase the minimum winter flow to 400 cfs, with provisions for up to 500 cfs in winter. The plan is valid for 30 years, and will be up for renegotiation in 2051.

Swapping out leaky Central Oregon Irrigation District canals for modern pipes benefits not only aquatic life but also farmers in the North Unit Irrigation District, junior water rights holders who have suffered greatly during the current drought.

Starting in April, when the current project is complete, the Central Oregon Irrigation District will pass the savings onto North Unit, boosting that district’s amount of water diverted from the river by 30 cfs. For North Unit, which diverts around 500 cfs in summer, it won’t allow farmers to significantly increase their summer allotment, but it could serve as a buffer, preventing sudden cuts like those experienced this year when the district had to slash allotments in mid-season.

“Thirty cfs would be 60 acre-feet per day,” said Mike Britton, general manager for North Unit. “I don’t think 30 cfs would have changed much (this year) other than it may have prevented additional cuts to allocations.”

In seven years’ time, when more conservation projects are complete, Britton estimates that an additional 43,000 acre-feet could be made available to Wickiup Reservoir each year if current precipitation rates remain the same.

“That’s a sizable amount for sure,” said Britton. It doesn’t get farmers back to 2 acre-feet that they received when Wickiup Reservoir could fill to the brim, he said, but it would help boost current allocations.

Britton said holding back more water in winter to help boost the level of Wickiup Reservoir is possible, but only in coordination with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Central Oregon Irrigation District. Retaining more water in the reservoir during winter would have to be done in a way that does not impact spotted frog habitat, he said.

“Whatever we do has to be science-based,” said Britton. “Between the applicants of the HCP (habitat conservation plan), and Fish and Wildlife Service, all the parties will have to agree to make those changes.”

Environmentalists applaud the efforts by the irrigation districts to work with the fish and wildlife service, despite the hardships currently faced by farmers enduring a historic drought.

“The COID piping project has been funded almost exclusively with public funding, and the water should go toward restoring the health of our ailing river,” said Tod Heisler, director of the Rivers Conservation Program for Central Oregon LandWatch.

But Heisler said in addition to piping canals, the irrigation districts need to improve opportunities for water sharing.

“It is a real tragedy to see water still flowing in COID canals to tens of thousands of acres of hobby farms when family farms to the north struggle to stay in business,” said Heisler, referring to the Central Oregon Irrigation District. “We can and should do better.”

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