Long-awaited irrigation certainty and legal protection

January 12, 2021
Long-awaited irrigation certainty and legal protection

For years, completion of the Deschutes River Basin Habitat Conservation Plan was likely viewed as a distant goal for the city of Prineville and Ochoco Irrigation District.

But finally, as the new year began, the HCP became a reality.

The long process was initially spurred by the introduction of steelhead into the Deschutes River Basin, which includes the Crooked River and Ochoco Creek, in 2007.

"Historically, steelhead were in this basin. When the Pelton Round Butte (dams) project went in in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the (fish) passage didn't work and that species essentially died out above those dams," City Engineer Eric Klann explained. "The hatchery fish were reintroduced, and it wasn't a big deal at the time because they were hatchery fish. But right around that time, there was a ruling that came out through the federal courts that said you can't differentiate between hatchery fish and native fish. That was a big deal because all of a sudden, these hatchery fish were considered threatened."

This prompted the city and OID to seek legal protection from incidental "take" of the species. The city began its HCP effort in 2008 by requesting a non-prosecutorial discretion letter from National Marine Fisheries Service, which provided protection from incidental take for about two years. While that was still active, the city pursued and was granted a 10j designation ruling, which made the steelhead species experimental and nonessential for a period of 10 years. The designation, which served as a bridge to completion of the HCP, was scheduled to sunset in 2022.

Completion of the HCP, which was announced by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on New Year's Day, was a welcome sight for the city and OID leaders.

"It is a very important thing," said OID Manager Bruce Scanlon. "It is something that the district has been working on for a very long time."

"The completion of the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) marks a significant milestone for the city of Prineville and the eight irrigation districts in the Deschutes Basin," Klann added. "We've spent the past 12 years working with our partners to develop a collaborative strategy to share water resources in the Deschutes Basin, covering irrigation and related water management operations while enhancing fish and wildlife habitat."

Habitat conservation plans are voluntary agreements between the USFWS and landowners, private companies or other non-federal entities that ensure harmful effects to threatened and endangered species are avoided, minimized or offset. The Deschutes River Basin HCP is a collaborative strategy to share water resources in the Deschutes Basin, covering irrigation and related water management operations while enhancing fish and wildlife habitat.

The large-scale planning effort is designed to help the irrigation district members of the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, which includes the city of Prineville, meet current and future water needs while enhancing fish and wildlife habitat. It will cover approximately 10,700 square miles of land in Central Oregon. Approval of the HCP guarantees irrigation districts 30 years of access to Deschutes River Basin water.

The HCP will eventually become part of an application for one or more Endangered Species Act incidental take permits (ITPs) that would authorize incidental take of listed species caused by covered activities. The potential applicants for the permits include the city of Prineville.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is a cooperating agency in the draft EIS process. Conservation measures in the HCP would be designed to minimize and mitigate impacts caused by the take of covered listed species that may result from the storage, release, diversion and return of irrigation water by the districts and the city. The aquatic species covered by the HCP include the Oregon spotted frog and bull trout.

Klann noted that the city has already completed one conservation project, the Crooked River Wetland Complex, and others will follow in the future.

"There are a lot of ancillary benefits to it that helped the Crooked River," he said of the wetland. "We did all of those riparian improvements to the Crooked River, and we are adding that cool, clear water to it. So that was really our conservation effort that allowed us to receive the incidental take permit."

In addition to legal protection, the HCP provides certainty on a water storage, release, diversion and return paradigm for the next 30 years in the Deschutes Basin. It does so through a combination of adjusted water management practices, increased funding for conservation projects and in-stream leasing programs, more gradual ramping up and down of the irrigation season releases, support for on-farm water conservation, maintenance of fish screens and related items — all to better align the water management operations with the life-history needs of covered species.

"We are looking forward to implementing the HCP to improve our collective irrigation network in a way that better serves our community, conserves water, and improves fish and wildlife habitat," Klann said. "We are committed to maintaining winter flows in the Crooked River downstream of Bowman Dam of at least 50cfs, increasing summer flows, and providing habitat restoration funds for Whychus, Ochoco and McKay Creek."

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An aerial view of a body of water.