The Crooked River Act, 6 Years Later

At the end of 2014, the Crooked River Collaborative Water Security and Jobs Act was passed.  Commonly known as the “Crooked River Act”, I was a minor participant in the negotiation of this controversial legislation.  Many people whom I respect continue to believe that the Crooked River Act was a giveaway to irrigators and a loss for fish and wildlife.  I disagree with them, but the way in which the bill is being implemented does not meet the spirit in which it was negotiated.  Read on for an overview of the bill, how it is working, how it is not, and why this is an even more important topic given the impending release of the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan.

The Crooked River Act is complex, but a simplified overview is that Prineville Reservoir is one of the few in the West managed by the Bureau of Reclamation where some of the water is “uncontracted”, meaning that not all the water is under contract to be delivered to irrigators.  At the heart of the bill are the concepts of “first fill” and “fish water”.  First fill is the idea that as the reservoir fills, the allocation to contracted (irrigator) water is filled first.  Any additional uncontracted water is allocated to fish.  First fill gave the irrigators the water security they wanted.  In exchange, the fish water is to be released for the maximum biological benefit of fish and wildlife. 

The first criticism of the bill is that the irrigators get all their water before any is allocated to fish.  This year, for example, only half of the fish water bucket was filled.  I don’t like this aspect either, but in all but the most extremely dire scenarios, there should be enough fish water to maintain flows above some of the lows of the past.  Even this year, there could have been enough fish water to maintain a reasonable ecosystem.

The second criticism is that the fish water is not being released for the maximum biological benefit of fish.  Admittedly, this is a complicated task.   To understand it, you need to be aware that the Crooked River is mostly managed as an irrigation ditch.  Anglers, hikers, and campers are most familiar with the 8-mile long Wild & Scenic section of the river below Prineville Reservoir.  Irrigators begin taking water below this section with the largest amount taken by Ochoco Irrigation District.  If you “fly” the Crooked River using Google Earth, you can clearly see the many diversions.

Here are the first two irrigation canals, marked with arrows, taking water just below the Wild & Scenic Section. There are many more. In the image, water is flowing from the bottom to the top.

The graph above from the BoR website above is illustrative.  On September 2nd, the Crooked River was at 0 CFS (cubic feet/second) flowing into Prineville Reservoir, 203 CFS below Bowman Dam, and only 19 CFS at the CAPO gauge below Prineville.  The CAPO gauge is the low flow point on the river below the reservoir.  After CAPO, the river grows with inflows from Ochoco Creek, McKay Creek, contaminated excess irrigation water returns, seepage from nearby canals, and flows from the award-winning City of Prineville sewage treatment wetlands complex.  (The flows from the wetlands complex are clean and are a good thing.)

According to the Oregon Water Resources Department, there are 61 irrigation diversions between the CAPO gauge and Lake Billy Chinook.  Half of those are between CAPO and Ochoco Creek, just below Prineville.  These are mostly small until the river reaches the North Unit Irrigation District diversion above Smith Rocks where flows are again reduced.   Starting near Crooked River Ranch, the river grows when it is recharged from springs until it reaches Lake Billy Chinook.

Here is the NUID diversion near Smith Rocks.  The arrow points to pumps that take water out of the Crooked River and send it up to a canal that already has water from the Deschutes River.  The river is flowing east to west (right to left) and water in the canal is flowing south to north (bottom to top), it goes into a pipe that crosses the river, and then back into a canal.

You can see these changes in flows yourself with a scenic driving trip.  In the summer, when irrigation flows are being released, the 8 miles below Prineville Reservoir illustrates what a healthy river ecosystem looks like.  Continue to just past Prineville and you will come to the Crooked River Wetlands Complex.  Take a short walk on one of the trails to the river, look upstream, and you can see the dramatic reduction in flows as well as inflows from Ochoco and McKay Creeks.  Next, travel to Smith Rock State Park, a little below the NUID diversion.  Just before you get to the park you will cross over the NUID canal that is filled with water from the Deschutes River.

This is a drive worth taking.

Unlike the Deschutes River, the Crooked River is a “flashy” surface water system.  Flows would naturally be higher in the spring as snows melt and decrease through the summer.  Native fish like trout, steelhead, and salmon, adapted to these flows by correspondingly timing spawning and other life stages.  Irrigators need constant high flows for their diversions, however, so it is impossible to release water for the maximum biological benefit of fish by mimicking natural flows during irrigation season.

The Act recognizes this and sets a goal, but not a requirement, to provide a year-round minimum flow of 80 CFS from Prineville Reservoir all the way to Lake Billy Chinook.  This is an important goal as during irrigation season the Crooked River is high in the Wild & Scenic section below the reservoir and then drops to a trickle below Prineville, gains some flows, and then drops again below the NUID diversion.  During the winter, flows could be low even in the Wild & Scenic section as the reservoir is refilled.  Obviously, flows of 80 CFS all the way would help mitigate the current dramatic fluctuations and provide a minimum level of habitat for fish and wildlife.

Unfortunately, the fish water is not being managed by the BoR per the spirit or language of the Act.  According to the BoR, fish water is being released to provide “carry water” for the irrigators.  For the system to work, a certain amount of water must be in the river to raise it to a level where the water will enter an irrigation diversion.  This is “carry water”.  In the graph above, 20 CFS of the 203 CFS being released from the reservoir is fish water and is the source of the 19 CFS below Prineville. 

I understand the concept of carry water but if it is needed by the irrigators it should come from their water allocation.  The BoR counters that water making it past the CAPO gauge is benefiting fish and therefore should come from the fish bucket.  This is flawed logic.  The simple point is that the fish water is supposed to make it all the way to Lake Billy Chinook and not be taken by any of the 61 downstream diversions.

To release fish water for the maximum biological benefit of fish and wildlife it must be protected from all irrigation diversions.  State water law is complicated, but the best way to protect fish water is to obtain a secondary water right to protect the water instream.   BoR is the “owner” of the water in Prineville Reservoir and could obtain this secondary water right and protect the fish water.  For 6 years they have refused to do so.

In the winter months, after irrigation season ends, steelhead return to the river to spawn.  They need enough water to journey from Lake Billy Chinook to the Wild & Scenic section of the Crooked River as well as to Ochoco and McKay Creeks.  Unfortunately, lack of flows, particularly around Smith Rock, makes this a struggle.  

At the beginning of the current irrigation season there was more than enough fish water to meet the 80 CFS flow target all winter.  According to the BoR, however, after releasing fish water during the irrigation season as carry water, there will only be enough for 50 CFS after the end of irrigation season.  50 CFS is certainly more than what was present at times in the past, but it is not what it should or could be.  Even 80 CFS is well under what the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife would like to see.

The 2014 Crooked River Collaborative Water Security and Jobs Act remains controversial.  In my opinion this is due to the way in which it is being implemented, not the Act itself.  Unfortunately, the current management regime is about to be buttressed by the release of the long overdue Habitat Conservation Plan, scheduled for later this year.  According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the HCP will include a requirement for only 50 CFS of fish water and only in the winter.  There are other qualifiers as well for when the 50 CFS will be met, so even 50 CFS is not guaranteed.  This is yet another example of the Crooked River not being managed for fish & wildlife and why I assume that the HCP will be legally challenged.