The federal law that shaped the modern Deschutes River

April 16, 2018
The federal law that shaped the modern Deschutes River

Today, the Deschutes River is a ubiquitous part of life in Central Oregon, providing the region with drinking water, recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat — not to mention the name of its oldest craft brewery.

However, the river could look dramatically different than it does in 2018, if not for a federal designation that parts of the river received three decades ago.

“It would really have been a moribund and sterile natural environment,” said Gail Snyder, co-founder of Coalition for the Deschutes, an environmental nonprofit group based in Bend.

The organization will be holding a presentation Monday to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the designation of three sections of the Deschutes under the federal National Wild and Scenic River Act in 1988.

Snyder said the designation helped shield portions of the Deschutes from additional dams, which would have further affected the flow of the river, while paving the way for additional restoration efforts along Central Oregon’s waterways.

To celebrate 30 years since the designation, along with the 50th anniversary of the federal law itself, Coalition for the Deschutes will host a presentation by Tim Palmer, an author and photographer who specializes in rivers. Palmer will present a slideshow of photos he’s taken of rivers covered by the Wild National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, talk about conservation work on Oregon’s rivers, and take questions from the audience.

“Rivers literally flow in our veins,” Palmer said. “They’re vital to our lives and our future.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Deschutes River became locally famous for its consistent water levels, with very little seasonal variation between winter and summer. Palmer said the Deschutes River is partially fed by underground springs, which flow into the river more gradually and consistently than snowmelt.

However, the 1950s and 1960s was a period of significant dam construction across the United States, and the Deschutes Basin was not immune. Dam development on the Upper Deschutes generated hydroelectric power, but altered the consistent flow of the Upper Deschutes. The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, initially established in 1968, is designed to safeguard particular rivers deemed to have outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values, among other qualifications, according to the text of the act. The law prevents any federal agency from assisting or licensing any dam or other large project that directly and adversely affects the scenic qualities of a protected part of the river.

For the first 20 years of the law, Oregon’s waterways were underrepresented in the federal law, according to Palmer. In 1988, however, the state passed the Omnibus Oregon Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which added 40 river segments throughout Oregon, including 170 miles of the Deschutes River and 354 miles within the overall basin, to the act. Prior to that designation, 16 dams had been proposed near Bend, according to Snyder. She said the projects would have isolated fish populations and further changed the character of the river.

“It really would have been devastating,” she said.

The comprehensive management plan for the protected sections of the river was finalized, with involvement from 18 local, state and federal agencies. Mollie Chaudet, a retired U.S. Forest Service employee and a part-time scenic river consultant, said the management plan helped develop workable standards for maintaining in-stream flows during the summer, and laid out a long-term vision for the river.

Snyder emphasized that there’s more work to be done. Long-term, she said she’d like to see more water remain in the river to help with habitat conservation, and she praised irrigation districts for pursuing various water-conservation measures.

Despite the challenges, Palmer praised the preservation of the Deschutes, calling its effect on Bend a landmark case for how a river can help transform a city through recreation and other opportunities.

“It was a mill town, and now it’s this attractive, dynamic city that everyone wants to go to,” Palmer said of Bend.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818,

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An aerial view of a body of water.