No water drama for Deschutes

June 23, 2013
No water drama for Deschutes

Geology, adjudications smooth waters in Central Oregon

By Dylan J. Darling

Three months after the state determined the Klamath Tribes are first in line for water above Upper Klamath Lake, the tribes are using the new designation to keep more water for fish by stopping ranching diversions. The result is the latest water crisis in the Klamath Basin, which straddles the Oregon-California border.

In Central Oregon, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs have a similar trump card when it comes to water rights. The Klamath Tribes have rights dating to “time immemorial" for water flowing into the rivers that feed Upper Klamath Lake, according to the Oregon Water Resources Department.

The Warm Springs tribes also have a right “earlier than any other water right" for water leading into the Deschutes River, including the Crooked and Metolius rivers. The tribes have a 644,000-acre reservation downstream of Bend.

The Klamath Tribes put in a “call," or request, for water earlier this month amid a drought in the Klamath Basin. But the Warm Springs tribes would not resort to that kind of call on water in Central Oregon, a tribal official explained. Deepak Sehgal, the tribal water and soil resource manager, said the tribes agreed to this deal 16 years ago because of the unique geology around the Deschutes, which delivers irrigation water used on surrounding farmland back to the river after it passes underground.

“God made the system work, and a lot of the water that is taken out of the river makes it back to the river right about the time it gets to the reservation," he said.

The differences in water rights, water flow and water supply are why the Klamath seems to be a basin of nearly constant crisis while the Deschutes and Crooked rivers basin seems to be consistently calm. The Klamath water situation is further compounded by federally protected fish in the lake and Klamath River, downstream tribal interests and commercial fishermen dependent on salmon runs at sea.

In 2001, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation shut off water deliveries to some of the farmers supplied by the Klamath Reclamation Project. A summer of protests centered in Klamath Falls followed, drawing national media attention to the basin.

Now, Klamath again has attention from afar. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chaired a congressional hearing on the topic last week. While there have been efforts to come to agreements in the 12 years since, debates over water in Klamath continue. It is a different situation in Deschutes/Crooked rivers basin.

Done deal

The Water Resources Department finished the adjudication — or judicial sorting out — of water rights for the Deschutes/Crooked rivers basin in 1997, according to the Water Resources Department. The agreement established the Warm Springs senior water rights while the tribes agreed to make no call on the water of any other water right holders.

Adjudicating water rights in the Deschutes/Crooked rivers basin took about 15 years, Sehgal said. That seems quick compared with the Klamath adjudication, which took 38 years and wasn’t completed until March.

“In the Klamath Basin it’s all brand new for folks," said Kyle Gorman, the regional manager for the Water Resources Department in Bend.

Even ranchers with water rights going back to the mid-1800s are now being told that their water rights aren’t the oldest around and this year they likely won’t be able to draw the water they long have.

Becky Hyde, who ranches with her husband near the small town of Beatty, is among those shut off in the past two weeks. In all, about 400 families, running cattle or growing hay on about 96,000 irrigated acres, are likely to be affected.

“It is just devastating for people," she said.

Short supply

The Klamath Tribes made the call for water this spring, a drastically dry one in the basin, for the sake of the fish in Upper Klamath Lake, said Jeff Mitchell, the water team leader for the Chiloquin-based tribes.

“It is important that we do everything we can to protect the fishery," he said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the two suckerfish, the Lost River and the shortnose, for protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1988. The tribes call the fish “c’waam" and “qapdo" and say they once were a food source.

Keeping enough water in Upper Klamath Lake for the suckerfish is made difficult by the competing demands of coho salmon downstream, which were federally listed themselves in 1997, as well as agriculture and wildlife refuges. While the lake covers more area than any other lake in Oregon, it is shallow — averaging about 61⁄2 feet deep, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. When it is dry in the Klamath Basin, as it has been for the past decade, there simply isn’t enough water to go around.

“There has been kind of a long-term, dry-winter trend," Gorman said.

The Deschutes/Crooked rivers basin is in a different predicament. Even in dry times, as this winter has been, the influx of groundwater into the river makes up for it.

Sehgal, the Warm Springs water and soil resource manager, said tribes fish along the river, and there is adequate water for the fish.

Steve Johnson, the manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District, agrees with Sehgal when he explains what distinguishes the Deschutes/Crooked basin from the Klamath: water rights in the Deschutes/Crooked have long been settled and groundwater recharges the river.

“We are also blessed with more water supply and more consistent water supply," Johnson said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,

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