The HCP and the Future of the Deschutes

The long awaited Habitat Conservation Plan for the Deschutes Basin was recently released.  Like many in the environmental community, I find the HCP to be deeply flawed.  Below is a high level summary.  The HCP will be the subject of a series of posts over the next two weeks, each providing detail on a particular part of this complex topic.  Here is the official web site.  It is hard to overstate the importance of the HCP as it will determine the fate of most rivers in Central Oregon for the next 30 years.

What is the HCP and why is it important?

Endangered steelhead, bull trout, and the Oregon Spotted Frog, along with potentially listed chinook and sockeye salmon, live in waters negatively impacted by irrigators in Central Oregon. The proposed Habitat Conservation Plan will allow irrigators to continue to operate, and “incidentally take” (kill) species, if they agree to increase the amount of water in certain places at certain times of year.  This plan will determine flows in the upper and middle Deschutes, Whychus Creek, Crooked River below Prineville Reservoir, Ochoco Creek, and McKay Creek for the next 30 years.

Plan overview

Irrigators propose to use public funding to pipe a subset of canals thereby saving water that would otherwise be lost to seepage and evaporation.  A portion of that saved water will be returned to rivers while the rest will increase supply to irrigators.  The total cost of this effort has been estimated to approach one billion dollars and is expected to take decades to accomplish, assuming public funding can be obtained.

Good points

Flows in some stretches of some rivers will be increased at some times of the year.

Bad points

  • Irrigators do not own the water they use, it is owned by the public.  Nevertheless, they get the water at no charge, make profits or otherwise derive benefit from it, but claim dependency on public funding to implement conservation plans. (Update: see note below.)
  • Flows in the upper Deschutes will be slowly increased over decades, with no increase for 5 years. The 100 cfs target for the next 5 years was identified by the US Fish & Wildlife Service to have “adverse effects” on listed species in the 2017 Biological Opinion.
  • 30 years from now, flows will still be well under levels needed for healthy aquatic habitat per the Biological Opinion.
  • Water quality is not addressed.  Hot, polluted rivers and creeks can be lethal.  Agricultural runoff is present in McKay and Ochoco Creeks, the Crooked River, Wychus Creek, and the middle and lower Deschutes.

Alternate approaches?

The Basin Study Work Group, a multiyear endeavor by irrigators, agencies, and environmental groups, identified a number of approaches that would save equivalent amounts of water as main canal piping, do so far more quickly, and at far lower cost.  Use of efficient irrigation practices, private canal piping, and allowing individual irrigators to keep unwanted water in the river are good examples of this.

Can’t this be win-win?

Of course it can.  This is not a fish versus farmer versus city issue.  The Basin Study Work Group spent years determining that there is enough water to go around if it is used wisely.

What can you do?

There is very little time to influence a decision that will determine the fate of the Deschutes and Crooked Rivers for the next 30 years.  Public comments will be accepted through November 18, 2019.  You can learn more about the HCP as well as how to submit comments on the US Fish & Wildlife Service HCP website.   Stay tuned for a series of  posts I will make taking a deeper dive into the HCP.  In the meantime, you can read the backgrounder I wrote two years ago.  Unfortunately, very little has changed since then.  It provides an overview of upper Deschutes issues, players, and potential solutions.

You can also visit sites like the Deschutes River Conservancy to learn more about the Basin Study, Central Oregon Land Watch who is taking a local leadership role on responding to the HCP, and visit a new group: 30/30 for the Deschutes.

Note: there has been some criticism of this statement and perhaps it could have been better worded, but it is accurate.  The public owns the water.  Irrigation districts divert that water into canals with no payment to the public.  Landowners take water from canals for which they derive benefit.  It is true that landowners, as members (“patrons”) of irrigation districts, pay for the operation of the district, but not for the water itself.  It’s like paying for the delivery of a bale of hay but not paying for the hay itself.