Guest Opinion: Deschutes River Habitat Conservation Plan

Jan 21, 2021

The Source Weekly

Guest Opinion: Deschutes River Habitat Conservation Plan Local irrigation districts and the city of Prineville all withdraw water from the Deschutes River and are seeking a legal shield from the Endangered Species Act.
In the Deschutes Basin, Oregon Spotted Frog, Bull Trout, and Mid-Columbia Summer Steelhead are all covered by the Endangered Species Act. The Act requires that a recovery plan be put in place and that activities that will kill ("take") these species be covered by an "Incidental Take Permit" (ITP). In other words, it's OK to kill endangered species, but only "incidentally."

After 12 years the irrigation districts and City of Prineville have delivered a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) that has been deemed at least partly acceptable by the US government (the decision on steelhead has not been made).

The latest version of the HCP has improved significantly from its truly laughable beginnings. The applicants (irrigators and the City of Prineville) have put significant effort into crafting a plan that would result in the issuance of an ITP. The HCP now has some merit, but there are good reasons to believe that this plan will not lead to recovery.

The problem is that species need more water than planned, and they need it much more quickly.

In addition, other problems with the plan are the outrageous cost of canal piping (overwhelmingly funded by taxpayers), the omittance of the Middle Deschutes in any meaningful manner, and the complete lack of consideration for water quality. Our rivers need more water, but it can't be severely polluted like it is in the Crooked River and Lake Billy Chinook, home to bull trout and steelhead.

There is a bigger picture that is ignored. Our climate is clearly heating. Wickiup Reservoir will not fill again this winter, in fact it will likely start next irrigation season at its lowest level ever. Central Oregon has been in a state of drought for most of the past 20+ years, ranging from "abnormally dry" to "extreme." At the same time our population is booming and our aquifers are declining to the point that some residential wells are going dry.

The merits of canal piping and on-farm efficiency are undeniable, but they are expensive and will take decades to provide marginal benefit to the upper Deschutes, Wychus Creek, and the Crooked River, and no real benefit to the Middle Deschutes.

Oregon water laws were written over 100 years ago at a time when the state was being settled. Are these laws still appropriate? What is the most beneficial use of the public's water today? Clearly, agriculture plays a critical role, but should it get 90% of water use? How can we shift the discussion to making equitable, fundamental changes rather than merely quibbling about which tactic is best for spending massive amounts of taxpayer dollars to achieve minor benefit over decades?

Currently, it seems we are simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

—George Wuerthner is an ecologist and has published 38 books on environmental and natural history topics. He is a former river ranger with the Bureau of Land Management who has advocated for rivers for decades. He is currently ED of Restore Our Deschutes and also on the board of the Montana Rivers Action Network.

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