July 5, 2009 - Bend Bulletin Environmental Success Story

July 8, 2009
July 5, 2009 - Bend Bulletin Environmental Success Story

Environmental Success Story

Published: July 05. 2009 4:00AM PST Andy Zeigert / The Bulletin

Want some good news? You’ll find it in the graph above, which shows what’s been happening over the last several years in the section of the Deschutes River downstream from Bend. That’s the stretch that nearly ran dry every summer until the late 1990s.

The Deschutes is really two rivers in the city. The first river is the one people raft and kayak on, and the second is the relative trickle that remains after most of the water is removed for agricultural use. The mean flow at Benham Falls — well upstream of the city — was 1,900 cubic feet per second (cfs) on Wednesday. The flow below Bend was 140 cfs. One cubic foot contains about 7.5 gallons.

That’s a dramatic drop, but it’s also cause for celebration. The flow of the Middle Deschutes, as the have-not section is known, has approximately quadrupled since the 1980s. Back then, its meager summer flow existed only because irrigation districts, in a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, decided not to divert every drop.

A full explanation of what has happened in recent years would require a lot more space than we have. In brief, though, irrigation districts, public officials and conservation groups (namely, the Deschutes River Conservancy) have cooperated in an effort to keep more water in the river.

The effort is motivated partly by a desire to restore the Middle Deschutes to some semblance of its natural state and partly by a determination to avoid the regulatory wrath of the federal government. The reintroduction of the threatened steelhead above the Pelton and Round Butte dams has raised the possibility of Endangered Species Act problems unless local entities improve the river’s health on their own.

In any case, the river is now significantly wetter than it was only seven or eight years ago. The cooperating groups have managed to keep about 120 cfs instream through a combination of methods, including temporary leasing of agricultural water and permanent protection of water conserved by the piping of irrigation canals. Piping is attractive, though expensive, because it allows irrigators to meet their needs without diverting as much water from the river. Canals in their “natural” state lose huge amounts of water through seepage.

With 120 cfs of protected flow, the Deschutes River Conservancy and its partners are nearly halfway to their unofficial goal of 250 cfs. This number reflects an instream water right the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife requested several years ago for the river below Bend. The request is still pending, according to Kyle Gorman with the Oregon Water Resources Department. Nevertheless, the number serves as a useful and reachable target.

As impressive as the conservation effort has been, its results will soon be even better. Steve Johnson, manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District, points to a pair of significant projects on the near horizon. One, a piping project by the Swalley Irrigation District, will add 29 cfs to the Middle Deschutes. Another piping project, this one by Johnson’s district, will contribute 19.6 cfs. Together, these will push the conservation effort well above the halfway mark. To do so much in such a short period is impressive, to say the least.

In addition to the steadily upward trend over the last several years, the graph shows a four-year period of high flows, from 1997 to 2000. Credit for this anomaly belongs to Mother Nature. During those years, says Gorman, “we had an abundant amount of water and were basically spilling water out of Wickiup.” But over the last eight years or so, credit for the trend belongs to the groups that have worked steadily and quietly to fix one of the region’s most significant environmental problems.


Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2008


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