Last week I sent an email to the Bend Bulletin pointing out that their coverage of low levels in Wickiup Reservoir was inaccurate when it assigned partial blame to the endangered Oregon Spotted Frog. Flows for the frog out of Wickiup into the upper Deschutes River are in the winter only and Wickiup was completely full when irrigation season began. I was happy the Bulletin published a new article today that correctly identifies last winter’s low snow pack as the culprit for low water levels, but this new article also fails to address another important issue. Why where no mitigating actions taken? There are strategies that could have reduced the draw down.
As I first discussed in this post, local irrigation reservoirs are primarily filled by snow melt. In a typical year, irrigation season begins in April with reservoirs that have been filled over the winter and which are replenished for a few months as snow melts through the spring and early summer. If there is a large snow pack the reservoirs can end irrigation season in October with large amounts of water remaining. Water managers are aware of snow pack levels well before irrigation season begins, understand how their reservoirs will drain through the season, and know how low they will likely get.
We are in a period of warmer, dryer conditions, both in winter and summer. The big snow fall of 2 years ago notwithstanding, the current trend is clear. The question is, why have water managers not adjusted their strategies? Hope for a wet, snow-filled winter is not a plan. Now they are faced with a potential crisis. Wickiup is the second largest reservoir in the state. It is the primary source of water for North Unit Irrigation District which covers the farming community of Madras. Wickiup is near a record low, it may reach a new record low soon, and will require a very wet, cold winter to refill much less provide a snow pack that will replenish the reservoir sufficiently to restore fishing.
The Basin Study Work Group identified a number of “market based” strategies that could have been used to reallocate water deliveries between irrigation districts and individual irrigators. For example, studies have shown that a majority of landowners in some irrigation districts do not use their water for economic purposes. Further, these hobby farmers would often be willing to at least temporarily transfer their rights to others or place water back instream. Currently, large amounts of water are being delivered to landowners who simply don’t have an economically important use or need for it. This water could have been kept in Wickiup as an insurance policy against another dry winter or sold to others who need it. This is only one of the market based strategies that have been studied which could quickly and relatively cheaply improve water management in Central Oregon.
One person who has been involved in these issues for many years told me they believe that Wickiup was drained dry partly on purpose. Perhaps creating a crisis will influence public perception about habit restoration for endangered species in the upper Deschutes. Releases from Wickiup into the Deschutes River next winter could have a measurable impact on reservoir levels at the beginning of next irrigation season if there is another dry winter. This could give ammunition to those who want to blame endangered species protection for low levels in the reservoir.
I am not endorsing this view and certainly hope that nothing so callous is being considered but I do wonder why water deliveries have continued this irrigation season as though everything was normal. Personally, I hope that what might be a new normal of drier conditions is an impetus to make changes in water management.