What about the frog?

February 9, 2022
What about the frog?

Biologists and an attorney address farmer's questions about the Habitat Conservation Plan

By Pat KruisOn top of a historic drought, farmers and ranchers in Jefferson County gave up water for the habitat of the spotted frog and other endangered species.Farmers and ranchers wanted to know whether their sacrifices made any difference for the frog.At the Central Oregon Farm Fair and Trade Show Wednesday, Feb. 2, experts faced the firing line to answer their questions.Attorney David Fillipi represents the North Unit Irrigation District as it negotiates the Habitat Conservation Plan, the court-ordered agreement between environmental interests and Central Oregon irrigation districts on how to manage water to meet both habitat concerns and irrigation needs.Biologist Marty Vaughn, with Biota Pacific, advises NUID.Biologist Bridget Moran works with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Throughout the 2021 irrigation season, Moran negotiated with the irrigation districts over rationing water between habitat and agriculture."We were meeting multiple times a week and day to inform release of water," said Moran, "to provide best conservation with the limited water available."The first official year under the HCP, 2021, coincided with the worst water year since irrigation began in Jefferson County, but districts have released water for endangered species since the 2016. The severity of the drought heightened farmers' concern about water released for habitat.HistoryFillipi spoke at length about how the negotiated settlement helps irrigation districts."The HCP allows us to control our own destiny," Fillipi explained, using Klamath County irrigators as an example of a failing strategy. Klamath farmers chose to fight against environmental concerns and the Bureau of Reclamation. Fillip said Klamath lost repeated battles pitting the Endangered Species Act against their water rights. Klamath farmers endured the year without water for irrigation and may face another dry year ahead.Klamath's legal battles informed Deschutes Basin irrigators. Seeing the precedent, that the courts favor the ESA over water rights, irrigation districts in Central Oregon opted to negotiate a settlement.In 2015, environmental interests sued to divert all the water in the basin for the spotted frog. The court ruled in favor of the districts with the order to develop a plan for long-term ESA compliance."The HCP buys time to conserve water in the other districts," Fillipi said, "and get that conserved water to the NUID."The water spilled for frogs and fish comes out of the Wickiup Reservoir, the storage facility built for North Unit in the '30s and '40s. More than half of the productive farmland in the Deschutes Basin lies in North Unit, and Jefferson County has the most junior water rights. That means the district that arguably needs the water the most gets only the water left over when all the other districts have taken what they need.And environmental interests take water from NUID's storage.The HCP outlines conservation efforts in the other districts. The water they save goes to Jefferson County to make up for the water NUID loses to environmental releases.Violating the HCP comes with penalties: a $25,000 fine per violation and up to a year in prison.How about that frog?Bridget Moran answered a rumor that the spotted frog is native to Central Oregon."The spotted frog is native to this area," said Moran. "I'm 100% certain on that."The population of the spotted frog is dropping and the primary threat to the frog is water management, she said.Moran described the spotted frog as the most aquatic amphibian in the Pacific Northwest. They overwinter in water and need about two feet of water over them."The spotted frog is reliant on water all year long," said Moran, pointing out the goal of the HCP is to ensure sufficient water at each step of the frog's development. With that goal in mind, Moran said the HCP went as low as it could go for water releases required in the first years of the plan."We've got to guarantee that flow," said Vaughn. "We can't go lower."Vaughn says, even at the minimum release of 100cfs, most of the wetlands in the basin remain dry.Typically, water releases increase in April for the breeding cycle, but Moran says that can be delayed if the winter is cold and frogs haven't begun breeding."We wrote those provisions in knowing that each water year is different," said Moran. "The HCP gives us flexibility."The goal is to get the Deschutes River back toward a more natural hydrology. The current release of 100cfs helps restore the aquatic food web. "The 100cfs starts to reestablish that aquatic food bed to allow the ecology to come back to life," said Moran.In year eight, 2029, the HCP calls for a release of 300cfs, triple the current release for habitat. Why such a sudden increase?"It's not until 300cfs that you have a biological benefit," said Moran. "We wanted the districts to have that time to build conservation measures to get the water it needs."Did water releases help the frog?"Like the irrigators," Moran said, "frogs did not get the water they needed last year."Biologists will survey the frogs in April. They need multiple years of data to evaluate a trend.Moran hopes following the HCP will put the frogs and other protected species on a trajectory to recovery."If that all occurs," said Moran, "my goal is that we can delist the frog."The other side of the plan supposedly ensures that North Unit will find enough alternative sources of water to allow Jefferson County farmers to prosper.

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