Letter: A better plan for Deschutes River flows

April 21, 2016
Letter: A better plan for Deschutes River flows

By Michael Ogle

I attended the preliminary injunction hearing that was held in Eugene recently concerning the spotted frog and flows out of Wickiup. I came away with some thoughts about the process and whether we are moving forward in a sustainable fashion.

Too many of the attorneys and the judge displayed a lack of local knowledge (this should be expected; they are not biologists) of the Deschutes River dynamics, flows and what is needed for the Oregon spotted frog, now listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The Deschutes basin holds one of four recognized genetic groups (it makes this population special). It thrives in slow-moving water with permanent ponds off the main channel. Although not active in the winter, spotted frogs do not hibernate and are known to periodically move around even under ice. They are extremely aquatic and rarely go far from water.

They feed on insects, leeches, worms and almost anything else small enough to be swallowed, feeding both at the surface and submerged. In turn, they are preyed upon by garter snakes, herons, mink, raccoons and otters and fish large enough to swallow a frog. Breeding season is March and April and the males court with a quiet clicking sound. The fragmented populations living in the upper Deschutes seem to be particularly vulnerable at this time.

The court hearing couldn’t have come at a worse time for the farmers: just as they were beginning the irrigation season. This created a time stress that didn’t allow for a rational discussion among the parties. That said, it is in the farmers’ interest to keep kicking the problem down the road with stalling tactics which leads to continuing lawsuits and endless court battles. Irrigation water is a public asset that is given to the irrigators, but the state and tribes have a stake in this process for the public good.

The federal government is also a party to this with the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service. All are constrained by Endangered Species Act. These parties have not been very responsible in the past, usually deciding with agribusiness over the health of the river. The BOR releases just 20 cubic feet per second out of Wickiup in winter, essentially drying the river up until it receives input from Fall River and Spring River.

The forest service recently started a large public works project in the Wild and Scenic corridor but bowed to agribusiness in its original environmental assessment with specific language that the spotted frog could not be discussed (since changed with the ESA listing). The USFWS cannot be trusted after it failed to implement a plan to reintroduce another listed species (bull trout) because of agribusiness objections.

Making a judge decide what is right and wrong for the river is not fair to her; the different government agencies need to do their mandated jobs. Increasing flows will not be a magic bullet for the frog, and the river is never going back to its native state.

We can make a difference for the river with some changes. ODFW requested minimum stream flows of 300 cubic feet per second in 1947. All irrigators should share equally in the loss of water, rather than just junior water rights holders.

Overappropriation of the river will ultimately lead to an end of those rights. Let’s have a stable, sustainable future in which both irrigators and endangered species can thrive.

— Michael Ogle lives in Bend.

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