“The Deschutes River’s beauty hides problems”

The Deschutes River’s beauty hides problems”, was an editorial in yesterday’s Bend Bulletin.  I continue to be pleased with the paper’s new commitment to environmental coverage.  The problems facing the Deschutes River are numerous, complex, and often rooted in decisions made a century ago.  Few people, or even some organizations claiming to be advocates for the river, really have a grasp of the broad range of interwoven issues: water law and rights, hydrology, global heating, tax policy, groundwater recharge, mitigation, economics, biology, etc.  It really is a fascinating area that I have been studying for over a decade.  In that context, I think the Bulletin’s editorial did a fine job of skimming the surface of a few current high-profile issues.  In the future, I hope they can provide broader and more nuanced coverage.

The editorial writer has clearly been spending time speaking to the Deschutes River Conservancy, to whom I have complained for years about misleading statements.  Yes, during the summer the middle Deschutes below Bend does have flows around 120 CFS (cubic feet per second).  That may make it beautiful, but it is biologically irrelevant.  In the spring and fall irrigators drop the middle Deschutes below 65 CFS.  This is all that matters from a river health perspective.  Like us, aquatic life needs to breath all day, every day, not just in the winter and summer.

Also, the middle Deschutes is the section in the “most trouble”, although the whole river is in terrible shape.  100 CFS is the lowest flows get in the upper Deschutes below Wickiup Reservoir, which is about 17% of historical levels of approximately 600 CFS.  At 65 CFS, the flows in the middle Deschutes are 5% of historical levels of 1,200 CFS.  (The middle Deschutes gains flows from Spring River, Fall River, and the Little Deschutes River.)

While I disagree with the DRC’s spin on the middle Deschutes, they are one of the most knowledgeable groups working on local water issues and I think they are trying to do the right thing.  They did an excellent job of leading the Basin Study Work Group, where I was a participant.  I just wish the irrigators would implement some of the innovative ideas that were developed in the process.

There are other areas worthy of a least a mention.  Local hydrology, for example, is a critical element to flows in the Deschutes.  Snowpack feeds the local aquifer, but we are getting less snow and at the same time pumping more groundwater to accommodate population growth.  The Deschutes from its headwaters all the way to Lake Billy Chinook is low this year due to lack of snow and a lowering water table.

Taxation and economics are also worthy of mentions as well.  Local “farms” get massive property tax breaks even if they do not actually produce any agricultural products.  All that is required is the landowner spread water from the Deschutes on the ground and once every five years show some minimal income from it.  One 20-acre parcel I looked at a few years ago had taxes far less than I was paying for a lower valued home on a small lot in Bend.  This property had 15 acres of water rights but nothing remotely resembling agriculture.  In fact, the soil was so rocky that only weeds were grown.  Nevertheless, the owner dutifully watered his rocks and weeds to maintain his water rights.  Once every five years he opened his field for a neighboring horse to graze and was able to show a tiny income. 

Clearly, this sort of tax subsidy robs the rest of us economically and promotes water waste.  Oregon law states that water belongs to all Oregonians and is supposed to be used for our benefit.  I could go on but the bottom line is this is a complex issue and I am thankful that The Bulletin is raising its visibility.