Letter: A better plan needed to protect Tumalo Creek's flows

December 18, 2014
Letter: A better plan needed to protect Tumalo Creek's flows

By Paul Dewey
Published Dec 18, 2014 at 12:08AM

Tumalo Creek is one of those places that makes living in Central Oregon special. From its magical headwaters springs, to the spectacular Tumalo Falls, to the steady waters flowing through Shevlin Park, the creek is a recreational gem of our community. Unfortunately, it has not been treated well historically, either by the city of Bend or Tumalo Irrigation District, both of which have diverted substantial amounts of water from the creek.

Already, the creek is suffering from Bend’s and TID’s practices. A 2010 study by the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council found that the creek has not met Oregon water quality standards for many years. And the creek often doesn’t meet the minimum instream flow standards set by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for fish habitat.

The city annually diverts substantial water from the Tumalo Headwaters Springs. This water would normally flow over Tumalo Falls but is instead diverted by a ditch to Bridge Creek, from which Bend takes the water. If you think Tumalo Falls is already spectacular, imagine it with its natural flow.

The city currently uses about half the water it diverts around the falls, or 2 billion gallons per year, and returns the rest to Tumalo Creek. Under the city’s proposed new system, Bend plans to increase its use of Tumalo Creek water to about 3.6 billion gallons by 2015, 3.9 billion by 2020 and 4.1 billion by 2025. That means 2 billion fewer gallons would flow through one of our region’s most beautiful and popular areas, Shevlin Park, each year.

That’s right — even as other cities in Central Oregon, including Redmond and Sisters, have solely relied on groundwater and other water users are taking less water from our rivers, Bend plans to use substantially more from Tumalo Creek. This is despite the creek’s existing health problems.

It’s all part of Bend’s “surface water improvement project,” which will cost more than $60 million — paid for by high utility bills. LandWatch believes that there are safer, less expensive alternatives to taking more water out of Tumalo Creek. For instance, Bend could implement effective conservation measures or use more groundwater (which already provides over half of the city’s water). Or Bend could use water from the creek only when minimum instream flows are met — basically ensuring that there will always be enough water to keep the creek (and the fish, animals and plants that depend on it) healthy.

A Nov. 23 editorial in The Bulletin asserted that the minimum instream flows that LandWatch seeks to protect will not actually benefit the creek. The editorial argues that TID could take whatever water Bend left in, effectively eliminating any gains. That’s not a correct assumption. ODFW has requested that its minimum instream flow standards be met with this project, obviously believing it would benefit the creek.

One reason is that TID takes water from the creek over 10 miles downstream of the city’s diversions. That means 10 miles in which flows would be increased, including Tumalo Falls and Shevlin Park; both are above TID’s diversion. Also, TID’s water rights are primarily limited to the irrigation season. Bend takes Tumalo Creek water year-round. At those times of year when TID does not take water, any water left in the creek by the city would stay in the creek.

To show a true commitment to Tumalo Creek, Bend could protect the water it’s leaving in the creek by “leasing” it instream, so TID could not take it. Fortunately, there’s also no basis to assume TID would take any extra water, even if it could, or wouldn’t lease the water instream itself, since it has gone on record as wanting to leave more water in the creek.

Hopefully, after the recent court ruling, the new City Council will recognize that it is up to them to protect Tumalo Creek. The public should be heard and the creek treated like the treasure it is.

— Paul Dewey lives in Bend and is the executive director of Central Oregon LandWatch.

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