Sen. Merkley enters the Spotted Frog situation on the upper Deschutes River

April 14, 2016
Sen. Merkley enters the Spotted Frog situation on the upper Deschutes River

Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley has announced that a Senate Energy and Water Appropriations bill could help Central Oregon farmers maintain their irrigation water while protecting the ​Oregon Spotted Frog at the same time.

The provision urges the Bureau of Reclamation to provide additional funds for the WaterSmart program that will help irrigation districts comply with the Endangered Species Act. WaterSmart supports collaborative approaches, reduces conflict and prevents lengthy and costly litigation. A federal judge recently ordered the Bureau of Reclamation and the water districts to sit down with ecological groups to find a way to deliver water while rebuilding the damaged habitat of the ​Oregon Spotted Frog, a threatened species.

“Agriculture is a key economic driver in Central Oregon,” said Merkley. “The collaborative process that is unfolding in Central Oregon to address the loss of habitat for the spotted frog is remarkable and the language included in today’s appropriations bill is a step in the right direction to save family farms while protecting habitat and conserving water.”

In January 2016, Senator Merkley met with irrigation leaders in Central Oregon to discuss ways that irrigation districts are working with conservationists and federal, state, local and tribal governments to address the loss of habitat for the spotted frog and ways in which the federal government can fund water conservation projects including wildlife habitat improvements.

“Today’s Committee passage of this legislation could help bring millions of dollars for needed conservation projects in the Deschutes basin that will help preserve our agricultural economy and improve habitat for wildlife and fish,” said Mike Britton, District Manager for North Unit Irrigation District. “We thank Senator Merkeley for his leadership on this important issue.”

The bill was approved by the committee today on a bipartisan vote. The next steps would be for the bill to be sent to the Senate floor for a full Senate vote, and eventually to be merged with a counterpart bill from the U.S. House of Representatives in order to be passed by both houses and signed into law.

This new development in the spotted frog situation is a common occurrence around the West in which water projects that were built decades ago are today being increasingly pressured to abide by the growing volume of laws mandating restoration and enhancement of areas damaged by those water projects. Fish ladders were among the first “remediation projects.” Habitat enhancement for wildlife soon followed and today the movement to “green up” big water projects that were built strictly for farming and food production are in full bloom. The Endangered Species Act is the hammer.

Senator Merkley strongly hinted in his news release that there are presumed “water projects” to conserve water along the Deschutes River and also presumably in the irrigation water delivery system. There has been renewed mention by various irrigation districts that half the water released by Crane Prairie and Wikiup Dams is lost due to evaporation and ground seepage along the many miles of canals between the dams and the farms far to the north of Bend. Taking the water out of the canals and putting it in sealed pipes would dramatically improve the efficiency of the delivery system, thereby allowing more water to be left in the Deschutes River for wildlife habitat – including habitat for the spotted frog.

Senator Merkley says he expects the legislation to pass and for the program to move forward which should work for the benefit of the various Deschutes River irrigation districts and the ecological protection groups who filed suit against them in an effort to speed up a solution. And that is what appears to be emerging. Meanwhile, the federal judge who expects substantial progress between the irrigation districts and the ecological protection groups didn’t appear to be willing to wait years for some kind of improvement for the spotted frog. The judge could very well order “interim” water management procedures to move the process along at a more reasonable pace while federally funded water conservation projects are constructed to effect a more comprehensive and “final” solution. Some of these interim procedures might require the operators of Wikiup Dam to put more water in the river year round to assure better support of what spotted frog clusters remain in and around the river.

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