Sunriver-area residents struggle with Deschutes flooding

September 4, 2017
Sunriver-area residents struggle with Deschutes flooding

Possible causes range from changing river channel to downstream weeds

The Deschutes River is running inside Phill McCage’s backyard, and it isn’t supposed to be there.

Since July, McCage and his neighbors near Sunriver have dealt with high waters covering their docks, seeping into their lawns and drawing hundreds of mosquitoes to their backyards. The possible causes range from an evolving river channel to flow-slowing weed growth downstream. Whatever the reasons for the changing river, it’s created the worst flooding McCage has seen in his four years living on Upland Drive, and he and his neighbors are wondering what they can do to reclaim their riverfront property.

“In the past, the worst situation was maybe a puddle,” McCage said.

Now, outdoor furniture in the fenced portion of his yard sits in pools of standing water. Supporting posts at the end of his dock are tied together with ropes, waiting for lower winter water levels so they can be repaired.

The rest of the dock, which normally rests comfortably above the wetlands, is dry until he starts to walk on it. Then, water starts squeezing up through cracks in the planks, rising until it begins to cover his shoes and forces him to turn back.

A mosquito trap McCage last cleaned a week before is again full of hundreds of tiny bug bodies, and still more mosquitoes fly lazily around the corner of the fenced portion of his yard. The mosquito situation is bad enough that McCage’s wife, Jude, has avoided their back deck because of severe reactions to mosquito bites.

The grass in next-door neighbor Peter Holcomb’s backyard squelches underfoot, as if he had left a sprinkler on too long. But Holcomb hasn’t watered his lawn in a while, as the Deschutes River has soaked the soil underneath. The water intrudes on Holcomb’s prized garden, where half-drowned daisy plants sit in pools. There is a slow-moving stream inside his property where he said ducks often swim.

“This is my water pit,” Holcomb said, gesturing to a fire pit full of standing water and drenched logs. While water has yet to reach his house, Holcomb said an encroaching river could weaken homes’ foundations.

Residents aren’t allowed to put up any obstacles blocking the flow of the river, even inside their own property lines, because of its designation as a federal wild and scenic river. This makes it hard to sell property, Holcomb said. His other next-door neighbor’s home has been on the market for three years, and real estate broker Gloria Smith, who lives nearby, told The Bulletin in an email she has trouble keeping buyers under contract because of the flooding.

Jeff Lawrence, who recently bought land not far from McCage and Holcomb on Milky Way, said he wouldn’t have done so if he’d known the river would get so high.

“We’ve got water all the way up to our RV pads,” Lawrence said. “It’s basically taken away one-third of our riverfront property.”

Lawrence’s parents owned property on the other side of the river for about 20 years, and the family spent summers on the river. He said he’s never seen it as high.

The river’s height is unusual this year, said Monte Dammarell, president of the Upper Deschutes River Coalition. His organization formed in 2003 to connect communities along the upper Deschutes.

Deschutes River flows now fluctuate widely throughout the year because of farmers’ irrigation needs, he said. This can lead to flooding in the summer and stranded fish in the winter. Summer flows are typically between 1,400 and 1,600 cubic feet per second, while winter flows have increased from 20 to 100 cubic feet per second.

Because of the fluctuation, Dammarell said, banks are eroding, washing more sediment into the river and changing its channel. If it continues unchecked, Dammarell said, the Deschutes River will be as wide as the Mississippi but so shallow one could walk across it.

“Hopefully they’re going to come to some sort of agreement,” Dammarell said. “We can’t live like this.”

In the past two months, the river’s risen half a foot, said Jeremy Giffin, Central Oregon’s watermaster. The rise is not the result of increased water flowing from the Wickiup Reservoir, he said.

“Last year at this time, we were flowing this much water out of Wickiup Reservoir and nobody had any problems,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said, many homes are experiencing flooding this year.

“Boy, I can’t tell you how many calls I’m getting,” he said. “It’s upwards of a half-dozen a day.”

Heavy snow this winter means the Deschutes is higher than usual when it enters Crane Prairie Reservoir, Giffin said, but that doesn’t affect the large river downstream of the Wickiup Reservoir. Instead, there seem to be more weeds growing at the bottom of the river, he said. Those weeds slow the river’s velocity, causing it to rise between one-eighth and one-quarter of an inch each day.

Irrigation demand will drop soon, weed growth should slow down and river levels will drop as fall begins, he said.

But near Sunriver, where bits of grass, plants and silt swirl past nearly submerged docks, the promise of a drier autumn doesn’t assuage neighbors who’ve lost their yards to the river.

“Here man’s trying to control Mother Nature, and it isn’t working,” McCage said.

— Reporter: 541-633-2160;

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