Irrigation Districts Are Turning On - Here's What That Means

April 7, 2023
Irrigation Districts Are Turning On - Here's What That Means

By Jacob Kimiecik, DRC Project Manager

It’s that time of year, folks! Irrigation season is about to start, and that means BIG changes to our rivers for the next 6 months. The Deschutes River Conservancy is always tracking these things, and we thought this would be a good opportunity to share with everyone what’s going on at a high level.

Bit of geography first for those who are new. The Deschutes River flows south to north, with major storage systems near the headwaters, namely Wickiup Reservoir. The river is generally broken up into two sections, the Upper Deschutes (the section starting from the headwaters to Lake Billy Chinook) and the Lower Deschutes (everything from Lake Billy Chinook to the Columbia River). It is also common to refer to the stretch of the river between Bend and Lake Billy Chinook as the Middle Deschutes. There are multiple irrigation districts that have major diversions off the river. The last of these diversions are located on the north end of Bend, near the intersections of NE Division and NE 3rd Street. One of those last diversions is the North Unit Irrigation District Canal, delivering water all the way to the Madras area, and another is Central Oregon Irrigation District’s Pilot Butte Canal, delivering water to areas primarily in and around Bend and Redmond. Swalley Irrigation District also has a diversion in this same area, but it is piped so harder to spot, and it diverts a smaller amount of water. Other major diversions on the Deschutes include the Arnold Irrigation District diversion (which can be seen on the south side of Lava Island) and Central Oregon Irrigation District’s Central Oregon Canal (located on the south end of Bend, near Elk Meadow Elementary).

In the winter, you probably notice that flows in the river look much lower than usual. This is because these diverters, the irrigation districts, are not needing any water for agricultural use. Instead, they are storing water in the reservoirs upstream (Wickiup). What does this mean in the river? Well, for the last 4 months, only about 100 cubic feet per second of water was being released out of the reservoir and into the Upper Deschutes. On March 30th that changed, and the irrigation districts began releasing water for the year. Right now, about 400 cfs are being released. This will continue to increase over the next few weeks and months – last year, releases maxed out at approximately 1300 cfs in late June.

This of course means you’ll be seeing a lot more water in the river as it travels to the diversions and into canals. However, because all of the diversions are located in Bend or upstream (the Upper Deschutes), everything PAST Bend (the Middle Deschutes) will have much lower flows than you would see in the winter. This past winter, flows past Bend in the Middle Deschutes were typically between 300 and 450 cfs. In the summer, those flows will be closer to 100 cfs.

So, when you look at the Deschutes and the canals today, tomorrow, next week, and next month, take note of how the flows change in different locations. The river is heavily influenced by how these irrigation districts operate on an annual basis, and our job at the DRC is to try and balance things out and get the Deschutes closer to its natural state. The locations of these diversions and the timing of releases play a huge part in that management. Not to mention the efficiency of the infrastructure and priority date of each irrigation district, water law, regulations, willing partners… But that can be a post for another time. In the meantime, here are some resources to track along with us and learn more:

BOR Hydromet

DRC Website

OWRD Stream Gage

About the AuthorJacob joined the Deschutes River Conservancy in 2021 as a Project Manager. Prior to joining the DRC, Jacob earned a BS in Environmental and Natural Resource Economics along with a BA in Economics from Colorado State University in 2016. Jacob also earned a JD from Lewis & Clark Law School in 2021 with a certificate in Environmental and Natural Resource Law. Having worked with a variety of organizations focused on environmental projects, law, and policy, he is enthusiastic to bring his excitement for water law and policy to the DRC.

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