Economic Value of Rivers in Deschutes County?

I was recently contacted about potentially participating on a panel discussing rivers in Deschutes County.  Others would cover wildlife and habitat issues but they were looking for someone who would address economics.  To the best of my knowledge there have been no comprehensive studies done on this topic but it did get me thinking.

It would be relatively easy to measure the economic contribution of activities that are clearly tied to rivers within Deschutes County.  I know of five fly fishing shops in Bend, one in Sisters, and another in Redmond.  Most of their sales could be included.  There are sporting goods stores that have fishing departments, a portion of that revenue could be counted. There are fishing guides, white water rafting companies, canoe rentals, etc.  Some hunting related revenues could also be included.

It would be less easy to measure, but some portion of the overall tourism economy would also have to be included.  People come to recreate in Deschutes County by floating our rivers, hiking, biking and bicycling alongside rivers, and viewing and hunting wildlife that survives due to our rivers.  These visitors eat in restaurants, shop, entertain themselves, utilize overnight lodging, etc.  Some part of these revenues could be teased out of the data by a qualified economist and be included in the total.

I believe, however, that this would still be a dramatic under appreciation of the economic impact of our rivers.   About a year ago Central Oregon Land Watch posted a study done by Headwaters Economics that discussed the agricultural economies of Deschutes and Jefferson Counties.  The primary thrust of this report is that agricultural commodity sales in Jefferson County are more than double sales in Deschutes County while irrigators in Jefferson County have junior water rights and therefore less access to water.

Also included in this report is a hint of the real overall economic impact of rivers.  Per the report, Deschutes County has seen “exponential” growth in population, employment, and per capita income.  Headwaters Economics states that we have one of the fastest growing economies in the West.  This growth is “largely a reflection of the area’s growing appeal as a recreational hub and tourist destination”.

In short, Deschutes County is growing because of the outdoor lifestyle we offer.  Jobs followed people in search of that lifestyle.  Lifestyle is our growth engine and rivers are a foundational element of that lifestyle.  Whether you directly use a river or merely view it while walking or dining from a patio, our rivers are a cornerstone to our lifestyle-based economy.  Given that, how much of the overall economic growth of the last 20 years do we attribute to rivers and the overall outdoor lifestyle experience they enable?  Is 50% of our region’s growth over the past 20+ years due to our rivers?  More?

Restoring the upper and middle Deschutes would be another important economic driver.  The Deschutes above Lake Billy Chinook was an amazingly productive fishery and wildlife habitat prior to the installation of dams, most notably the dams that created Wickiup and Crane Prairie Reservoirs for the irrigators.  There are stories from that period of enough fish being caught in two days at Meadow Camp just above town to feed all of Bend at community fish fries.  I have seen a photo of a pile of fish as big as truck. There are photos of stringers of fish of a size that have not been seen in decades.  Restoring the upper and middle Deschutes to even a fraction of its former health could generate another significant increase in tourism, real estate development, and associated lifestyle economic activity in parts of the county that could use it.

So, what’s the economic value of rivers in Deschutes County, particularly the Deschutes River?  I don’t know, but I am quite confident it dwarfs the agricultural economy in Deschutes County ($26.1 million in agricultural commodity sales in 2012 per Headwaters Economics).  Irrigation districts withdraw 90% of the water in the Deschutes River for the agricultural economy while the lifestyle economy is already far larger and can continue to grow and benefit more of us with the proper stewardship.