Tug of water: Plan restores flows to Upper Deschutes but may fall short for threatened species

December 2, 2020
Tug of water: Plan restores flows to Upper Deschutes but may fall short for threatened species

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is set to decide on a plan to conserve habitat for threatened species in Central Oregon’s Deschutes Basin. It will mark the end of a years-long debate over how to allocate a limited resource to meet the needs of fish, frogs, farmers and all others who use water.

Humans have tinkered with Central Oregon rivers over the years to meet the water demands of a growing region, ravaging habitat for threatened wildlife in the process.

“Our native fish and amphibians have been hurt quite a bit by how we manage the river,” said Tod Heisler, who directs the rivers program for Central Oregon LandWatch. “Essentially we’re managing that Upper [Deschutes] River like an irrigation ditch, not managing it as an aquatic ecosystem.”

If approved, the plan would set in motion a 30-year itinerary to move the basin’s waterways — including the Upper Deschutes and Crooked rivers — back toward their natural state by restoring flows. In short, it means more water for frogs and fish in the winter and, ultimately, less for irrigators in the summer.

Water managers say this lays a foundation for long-term projects to better share water across the basin while also conserving critical habitat.

“Now, it isn’t a fix for the whole river for the next hundred years, but it is a huge, huge benefit to the foundation of that change,” said Craig Horrell, managing director for the Central Oregon Irrigation District and president of the Deschutes Basin Board of Control.

Environmental groups have lined up in opposition to the plan, saying it falls short of protecting fish and frogs in the short term when they need it the most.

The frog in question
A visit to the Upper Deschutes River this time of year shows a lowly trickle of water floating by bald riverbanks and parched side channels, which visualizes a key part of the problem.

The river supports wetland habitat for the Oregon spotted frog, which earned Endangered Species Act protection in 2014. The frog’s listing added urgency to conservation discussions already underway for native fish.

“Over the years the frogs kinda hijacked the fish,” said Mike Britton, general manager for the North Unit Irrigation District.

Related: Frogs, fish and farmers feel out compromise on the Deschutes

Water managers have for years turned the river “off,” so to say, in the winter to store water in reservoirs. Turning the river “on” releases stored water for agricultural use in the spring and summer.

High summer flows basically rip vegetation from riverbanks, while low flows in the winter dry out side channels. That strands fish to freeze and die if they’re not eaten by predators first. It also leaves a wide gulf of land between riparian vegetation and the river’s edge, both of which the frogs need to survive.

“It’s an aquatic amphibian that needs water all the time,” Heisler said. “You can imagine that when you drain the water in the winter and then you flood it in the summer, you’ve basically wrecked its prime habitat.”

After its listing, the Deschutes Basin’s eight irrigation districts and the city of Prineville had to develop a plan to protect the frog — as well as steelhead, bull trout and other species — in order to legally operate.

“As a district, I can say what we’re promising to do is scary for me to implement, but we’re happy to do it,” said Horrell, with the Central Oregon Irrigation District. “We’re happy that there’s a plan out there finally.”

The plan before the Fish and Wildlife Service would gradually increase the amount of water in the Upper Deschutes in the winter and decrease it in the summer. It essentially flattens the curve of the hydrograph back toward the river’s historically even flow.

“This more balanced water management approach reduces negative habitat impacts and species strandings,” FWS Bend field supervisor Bridget Moran wrote in an email. “Water management changes will be less abrupt than they have been in the past, allowing species to move in and out of habitats to meet their life history needs.”

The plan also contains habitat conservation provisions for frogs and other species on the Crooked River, Whychus Creek and other waterways in the Deschutes Basin.

Too little too late?
The Center for Biological Diversity and WaterWatch led a 2015 lawsuit to increase minimum flows on the Upper Deschutes. They, along with Central Oregon LandWatch, have said the new plan fails the basin and its wildlife.

LandWatch’s Heisler said that while the plan is an improvement, it doesn’t do enough to help fish and frogs right away.

“They’re basically just saying that we’re going to maintain and sustain a very degraded habitat,” he said.

Related: The challenges facing Oregon amphibians

The groups want to see the river restored to a moderate flow immediately, then gradually bumped up, which they argue is more in line with the conclusions of the landmark 2017 Deschutes Basin Study.

“For us, we’ve been hearing since the beginning ... that it’s not enough soon enough,” said Britton with the North Unit Irrigation District, “but we’re trying to rewind a hundred years of history and culture.”

The study found that there is enough water to go around in this high desert region if it’s managed efficiently.

Stakeholders, including FWS, seem to agree that restoring flows is a first step that should be followed by on-farm conservation measures, piping and canal projects, and market-style water trading.

The draft version of the plan was released last fall and received more than 1,600 public comments, which guided the final version of the plan submitted in November.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make its permit decisions no sooner than Sunday.

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