Plan to conserve water for the Deschutes gets go-ahead

January 4, 2021
Plan to conserve water for the Deschutes gets go-ahead

A habitat conservation plan designed to increase the flow of water in the Deschutes River in winter to protect endangered species has been approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The service adopted the plan after more than a year of review. It was formally adopted Thursday, Dec. 31, according to a statement from Bridget Moran, the field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The plan, which was 12 years in the making, was produced by the Deschutes Basin Board of Control member irrigation districts and the city of Prineville. In exchange for increasing the flow of water in Deschutes Basin rivers, the signatories will receive an incidental take permit, which allows them to continue their primary activities without the threat of litigation.

“This is a huge milestone and historic agreement for the districts and the basin,” said Mike Britton, general manager for the North Unit Irrigation District, one of the eight districts involved in the plan. “But really this is only the beginning. We’ve now got to meet the commitments we’ve agreed to as well as completing conservation projects to make sure we stay on track.”

The plan is laid out in a sweeping 850-page document, which details a timeline for the districts to increase the flow of water in Deschutes Basin rivers and other measures to restore habitats that have been degraded due to agriculture.

Districts are spending millions of taxpayer dollars to pipe their canals, the primary strategy for conserving water that can be saved for the river. Central Oregon Irrigation District alone plans to spend over $100 million over the next decade on piping projects.

Canals are notorious for leaking water back into the ground, especially in Central Oregon, which has very porous canal beds due to volcanic soils and rock.

The current rate of flow in the Deschutes River from Wickiup Reservoir is around 100 cubic feet per second. Biologists say the flow in winter must be closer to around 600 cfs to protect the Oregon spotted frog, listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

According to details in the plan, the minimum flow of 100 cfs must be maintained in years one through seven of the plan, after which the rate needs to hit 300 cfs until year 12. The Deschutes flow must then increase to 400 to 500 cfs in winter from years 13 through 30.

The districts also intend to lower the rate of flow in the Deschutes River in summer, when flows have previously been as high as 1,800 cfs. Wide swings from winter to summer flows have degraded banks along the Deschutes, causing harm to habitat used by fish and frogs. By phase three of the plan in 2033, the summer flow of the Deschutes will fall to 1,200 cfs.

Craig Horrell, manager for the Central Oregon Irrigation District, said in addition to piping canals, his district also intends to focus on wildlife habitat conservation. More than $5.2 million is planned for conservation over the next 30 years, said Horrell.

Reaction to the plan among environmentalists is mixed. While the plan to increase the flow of water in the Deschutes has been welcomed, some say the target dates to reach the goals can be shortened, and with a lower cost, with more aggressive on-farm water conservation measures.

“The fastest way to help both farmers and the river is to combine water conservation projects and market-based incentives in an integrated strategy,” said Tod Heisler, director of the Rivers Conservation Program at Central Oregon LandWatch. “Private laterals can be piped at a low cost and significantly reduce water delivery problems.”

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