Janaury 4, 2010 - Bend Bulletin Taking The Deschutes To A New Level

Jan 04, 2010

Janaury 4, 2010 - Bend Bulletin Taking The Deschutes To A New Level

Taking the Deschutes to a new level
Low winter flow in Upper Deschutes is becoming a priority

By Kate Ramsayer / The Bulletin
Published: January 04. 2010 4:00AM PST

For about a decade, the Deschutes River Conservancy, irrigation districts and water managers have been focusing on the middle stretch of the Deschutes River between Bend and Lake Billy Chinook — replacing open canals with pipes, leasing or buying water rights and doing other conservation projects to allow more water to be left in the river to improve fish habitat and water quality.

But now, they’re looking further upstream, to the stretch just below Wickiup Dam. In the winter, the Deschutes River there drops to a fraction of its natural flow as officials store water in the reservoir for the coming irrigation season.

“The flows below Wickiup have been an issue since the water right was granted over 50 years ago,” said Kyle Gorman, region manager with the Or- egon Water Resources Department. “But it’s only now, at this time, that we’re talking about ways to solve the problem or improve the flows up there with the drive from the Deschutes River Conservancy and the interest from the irrigation districts at working together.”

The goal is to get the river flows to 300 cubic feet per second, a target set by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife; this week, it’s been below 100 cfs, and historically the flows have dropped to 20 cfs.

And any solution or effort to reach that target will involve a number of different groups cooperating on different approaches, said Tod Heisler, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy.

But officials believe there’s a way to keep irrigation water flowing to farmers while still increasing the rivers’ flow for the benefit of fish, he said. And the Deschutes River Conservancy has received about $130,000 from several different sources to come up with ideas, and work with irrigators and water managers to see how feasible the ideas are.

The situation is complicated, Heisler said, because multiple irrigation districts use water stored in Wickiup Reservoir. And North Unit Irrigation District, which serves many of the area’s most productive farms in Jefferson County, also has the most junior water rights — meaning they get water only after the more senior water rights are met.

One option is to transfer more senior water rights to North Unit customers, so they can use some of the water that naturally flows in the Deschutes River. That way, they won’t have to use as much stored water from Wickiup, so more could be released in the winter.

“If we can increase the seniority of their natural flow rights over time, that reduces their reliance on a reservoir,” Heisler said, “and creates more and better options for managing the reservoir for multiple purposes like fish and wildlife.”

Conservation projects — like replacing leaky, open canals with pipes, so the irrigation districts are more efficient — will probably play a role as well.

Water seeps out of North Unit’s canal between Bend and its customers in the Culver and Madras areas, said Richard Macy, chairman of the irrigation district’s board. So replacing it with a leak-proof pipe could reduce the amount of water it would have to take from the reservoir.

Or other water rights could be transferred to North Unit to benefit the whole basin’s water supply, he said, though how that would happen would need to be worked out. But before any changes are made, Macy emphasized, the district would have to make sure that its customers still get the water they need.

“We’re as interested as anybody in helping the flows of the Deschutes Basin,” he said. “We’re definitely concerned, and it’s vital for the economy and for our users here within the district to have an ample supply of water.”

In the back of everyone’s mind as they consider proposals and ideas, Heisler said, is what would happen in a dry year. And a separate plan might be worked out for droughtlike situations.

The Deschutes River Conservancy has already done pilot projects to let more water flow down the Upper Deschutes in wintertime. They worked on a project with the Lone Pine Irrigation District, a small district near Terrebonne. The district conserved water in the summer, and the organization leased stored water, which it released in the winter.

The group needed four irrigation districts as well as the federal government to sign off on the plan, Heisler said — but it was a way to show that projects to increase winter flow were even possible.

A more permanent solution, however, could come from conservation projects combined with different ways of managing the reservoir, he said.

“We’re just trying to figure out — how do we optimize the system for farmers and for fish through all of these different ways of looking at it,” Heisler said. “There’s gotta be a better way for everybody.”

Kate Ramsayer can be reached at 541-617-7811 or at kramsayer@bendbulletin.com.


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