Why was Wickiup drained dry?

Wickiup and Crane Prairie reservoirs on the upper Deschutes River were constructed to hold water for irrigation releases from Bend to Madras.  Wickiup is currently at its lowest level since 1952, and it may get lower.  As of September 20th Wickiup is only 2% full.  Until recently, Wickiup had some of the best kokanee fishing in the state and excellent trout fishing as well.  This popular fishery is now gone.

Earlier this month the Bend Bulletin reported on the draw down (see the photos).  Since the article was published Wickiup has gone down further.  The Bulletin provided a reasonable overview but incorrectly assigned partial blame to conservation efforts to protect the endangered Oregon Spotted Frog.

As readers of this blog know, the US Fish & Wildlife Service is negotiating with Central Oregon irrigation districts to create more habitat for the Oregon Spotted Frog.  This process is ongoing but current agreements are to maintain a somewhat stable level in Crane Prairie during frog breeding and incubation periods as well as a minimum year round flow of 100 cfs in the upper Deschutes.  The upper Deschutes is also important habitat and was often drained dry in the winter when water was withheld to refill the reservoirs.

It is important to understand that releases of water into the upper Deschutes last winter had no effect on Wickiup or Crane Prairie reservoirs.  Both reservoirs were completely full at the beginning of irrigation season this spring.

Further, maintaining levels in Crane Prairie had at most a minor impact.  Wickiup is the second-largest reservoir in Oregon while Crane Prairie is only about a quarter of its size.  Releasing more water from Crane Prairie into Wickiup would have done little to maintain the Wickiup fishery without negatively impacting the even more popular fishery in Crane Prairie.

What’s going on?  Why was Wickiup drained dry?  The Bulletin article partly blamed the Oregon Spotted Frog but that is not supported by the facts.  The article also pointed to a dry summer, which is clearly true, but that did not cause other local reservoirs to be emptied. The Bureau of Reclamation web site shows that other reservoirs in Central Oregon are low, but not empty.  As of September 20th Crane Prairie is 64% full, Crescent Lake is 71%, Prineville is 40%, and Haystack is 65%.

The real problem was inadequate snow pack and precipitation to refill the reservoirs.  The question is, why did irrigation districts continue to maintain full deliveries to their patrons in spite of this?  They could have cut back deliveries or worked with each other to conserve water using some of the market based incentives uncovered during the Basin Study Work Group process.  That would have been a reasonable insurance policy to guard against another dry winter.  If we have another dry winter irrigators could see painful shortages next summer.  If I were an irrigator I would be worried and angry about what appears to be mismanagement of Wickiup Reservoir.

Anglers also have a right to be angry.  A popular trout and kokanee salmon fishery has been destroyed.  The kokanee population most likely will perish.  Rainbow and brown trout could migrate up or down river from Wickiup as there is no fish screen at the Wickiup outflow.  Bull head catfish are also in Wickiup.  They likely cannot spawn in the Deschutes but they could live in the river where they would be an invasive and predatory species, even if only temporarily.

Draining Wickiup dry should be concerning to irrigators and anglers.  I think an honest explanation is in order.

UPDATE: I had a question about how the lack of snow pack last year is the primary issue for Wickiup being drained dry even when it started the irrigation season full.  In a typical year the reservoirs begin the irrigation season full and are replenished for months as the snow pack melts.  Summer time rains also contribute to the reservoirs although not significantly.  About a year ago Wickiup ended the irrigation season with significant water because of the large snow pack the prior year (remember shoveling snow off your roof?) and was quickly filled over the winter.  Hence, a full reservoir in the spring when irrigation season began.

This year there was very little snow pack and there has been essentially zero rain. The mismanagement I refer to is not taking action when it was obvious that there would be little replenishment from snow melt before irrigation season even began.  A full reservoir will be drained if there is no snow melt.  If we don ‘t have a monster snow year things could be ugly next irrigation season as the reservoirs may not even fill over the winter much less be replenished by snow melt.

Side note: In my continuing quest to find a new home with more room for my toys, a couple of days ago I looked at a new house on Bend’s east side on two acres that had a Central Oregon Irrigation District lateral canal running through it.  Decades ago this canal provided water to farms but this area has been repeatedly subdivided.  Now it is mostly parcels that may have a big lawn but often do not use their water until they are required to in order to keep their water right.  The developer’s family bought the property almost 20 years ago and is now building multiple houses on it, each with a few acres.  The developer told me that so little of the water in the canal is used that it has overflowed at times.  He said he plans to use his water for a decorative pond at the house he is building for himself nearby and a big lawn.