Irrigators anxious over spotted frog lawsuit

December 23, 2015
Irrigators anxious over spotted frog lawsuit

A lawsuit over the Oregon spotted frog is making irrigators anxious.

A lawsuit over the effect of water reservoirs on the threatened Oregon spotted frog could result in irrigation disruptions for more than 4,600 farmers.

Growers in two Central Oregon irrigation districts are nervously watching the case, which pits the Center for Biological Diversity environmental group against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency operating the Crane Prairie and Wickiup reservoirs.

The lawsuit alleges the reservoirs have altered natural water flows in the Deschutes River to the point of interfering with the frog’s life cycle. While the complaint asks a federal judge for injunctive relief, it doesn’t specify what form such an order may take.

“We’re just sort of waiting to see what their next move is,” said Shon Rae, communications manager for the Central Oregon Irrigation District, which depends on water from the Wickiup Reservoir.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the frog’s egg masses are flushed out when the water levels in the reservoirs rise rapidly.

When water is later released from the reservoirs for irrigation, other egg masses along their margins are dried up, the complaint alleges.

River flows are reduced as water accumulates in the reservoirs, stranding adult and juvenile frogs on dry land and isolating their populations, resulting in in-breeding, the group claims.

The Center for Biological Diversity contends that the federal government has violated the Endangered Species Act by operating the reservoirs in a harmful manner before it completes a required consultation about the effects on the frog.

An adverse ruling in the case could have a huge impact on nearly 1,000 farmers in the North Unit Irrigation District, which in dry years relies on the Wickiup Reservoir for nearly 100 percent of its water.

Even in years with healthy snowpack and precipitation levels, the district gets roughly half of its water from the reservoir.

“To return it to a natural hydrologic flow is difficult, at best, without harming local farmers and ranchers,” said Mike Britton, the district’s general manager. “How that would be accomplished, we really don’t know.”

The Central Oregon Irrigation District’s 3,650 growers use water from the Crane Prairie Reservoir to supplement their irrigation needs during the early and late parts of the season, depending on river flows.

Oregon spotted frogs have survived in the area even though the reservoirs were created nearly 100 years ago, Rae said. They’ve also developed a large population surrounding the Crane Prairie Reservoir.

“Essentially, we’ve created habitat for them,” she said.

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the environmental group, acknowledged that the frog lives on the margins of both reservoirs and benefits from the stored water.

However, the reservoirs have to be managed with fewer major fluctuations, since quick buildups and releases of water are chaotic for the frogs, he said.

“They can still deliver water to the irrigators, they just need to do it in a more careful way,” Greenwald said. “They have to do things more gradually and at different times of the year.”

Such changes in management would inevitably hurt irrigators, said Mike Britton of the North Unit Irrigation District.

More water would be stored in the reservoir during irrigation season, reducing the amount diverted for agriculture, and more water would be allowed to pass through dams during the winter, decreasing storage levels, he said.

“It’s quite a conundrum,” he said, noting that lower river levels in summer would hurt threatened fish. “There are other species to be considered, not just the frog.”

Irrigators want to help the frog by replacing irrigation ditches with pipes, which saves water and makes them less dependent on the reservoirs, said Rae. More efficient irrigation practices will also help in this respect.

Although the irrigation districts aren’t named as defendants in this lawsuit, the Waterwatch of Oregon environmental group has said they’ll be named as defendants in another spotted frog case that will also include the Tumalo Irrigation District.

Such litigation threatens to distract irrigators’ focus and sap resources from such improvements, she said. “It would be great if they wouldn’t sue us so we could just complete the process.”

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