Letter: Working together tor the Deschutes River

September 23, 2014
Letter: Working together tor the Deschutes River

By Mike Tripp, Jeff Wieland and Mike Britton

Oregon’s Deschutes Basin has a well-deserved reputation for people working together to resolve natural resource problems. It’s a compliment we take seriously because it requires hard work, commitment, and sometimes, compromise.

Throughout this basin, farmers, ranchers, irrigation districts, conservation groups and many others are working to conserve water, increase flows in the Deschutes River and enhance fish and wildlife habitat.

Our collaboration is especially important this year. Last year, a number of fish were stranded in the upper Deschutes River at Lava Island Falls, below the Bureau of Reclamation’s Wickiup Dam. Local volunteers and officials from Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife tried to rescue these fish, but many perished.

To prevent this from occurring again, Trout Unlimited, ODFW, U.S. Forest Service, the Upper Deschutes River Coalition, Deschutes River Conservancy and irrigation districts are working with Bureau of Reclamation and Oregon’s Water Resources Department to evaluate a modified ramp-down concept to benefit fish in the upper Deschutes River.

This concept is promising. Our plan, which is really an experiment, calls for ramping down releases from Wickiup Reservoir more slowly, over a 12-day period, rather than the normal two to three days. Slowing the releases over a longer period will allow flows to drop in the river more incrementally.

In the past, under certain dry conditions, these releases ramped down more quickly, and in a more continuous pattern, leaving some fish stranded in small channels or pools along the river’s edge. We believe a slower ramp-down concept will enable fish and wildlife to move into the river’s main channel or others areas with sufficient water.

Protecting this region’s fish and wildlife is important for all of us. The Deschutes River plays a remarkable role in Oregon’s economy and environment. This famed river entertains thousands every year, provides economic and environmental benefits and creates moments of peace and reflection.

Boaters, rafters and paddlers cool off in it during the summer heat. People cycle, walk and hike along its meandering banks. Some just take in the river’s beauty, appreciating the rush of water that nurtures life. The river also provides water for farmers and ranchers who produce wholesome food and fiber for our communities and international markets. It is also a source of clean, renewable hydropower energy.

Fortunately, people are working to improve this river’s values. The districts, Trout Unlimited and others have been quietly restoring fish and wildlife habitat in the river, including its tributaries like the Crooked River, Tumalo Creek and Whychus Creek.

While some may be unfamiliar with our work, the results are impressive. Since the 1960s, Deschutes Basin irrigation districts have cut their annual water use by 200,000 acre-feet. This is a remarkable amount of water that is no longer diverted from the river but left instream for salmon, steelhead and other species.

For perspective, in a typical year, several families would use one acre-foot of water for watering their lawns or gardens, cooking, drinking, etc. These reductions in water use are the result of water conservation projects, like piping open irrigation canals, and farmers becoming more efficient by investing in technology and practices to reduce their annual demand.

Fishing and rafting interests are also working to improve river conditions. Central Oregon is well known for its blue ribbon trout fisheries and its whitewater. Many fishermen and paddlers volunteer their time on river restoration projects. Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, who own and operate the Pelton Round Butte Dams, are also investing heavily in fisheries restoration projects.

Our goal is to experiment with a new approach to benefit fish and wildlife in the upper Deschutes River. We’re hopeful this new ramp-down program will succeed. If it does not, we’ll continue to work together, evaluating new options and considering different steps.

Our long-term commitment is to make a difference, and we intend to keep that commitment.

— Mike Tripp is conservation chair of Trout Unlimited. Jeff Wieland is with the Upper Deschutes River Coalition. Mike Britton is president of the Deschutes Basin Board of Control.

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An aerial view of a body of water.