My Comments on the Groundwater Mitigation Program

For what it’s worth, here are the comments I submitted today regarding the 5-year review of the Deschutes Basin Groundwater Mitigation Program. Here’s a post I made earlier this month for background. Comments are due by August 25.

August 23, 2021

To: Sarah Henderson

OWRD Flow Restoration Program Coordinator

From: Yancy Lind

Subject: Comments on the DBGMP 5-Year Review Draft


Thank you for entering and considering these comments into the review process.  I want to state that I agree with the comments made by WaterWatch, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality on the last draft report.  I will not repeat them here.

The draft claims that the Mitigation Program has been a success.  “The benefits of the program are significant in some key areas where chronic low flows historically occurred, such as in the Deschutes River below Bend, Crooked River below Smith Rock, and Whychus Creek below the Three Sisters Irrigation District diversion.”  The draft report also states that “approximately 56 CFS of instream flow has been permanently restored to the Deschutes River and its tributaries”, which is on the order of 4% of the historical flow of the Middle Deschutes. 

OWRD claims success by using average flows without taking into consideration the timing and variability of flows, which can be extreme.  It is not uncommon for flows in the Middle Deschutes to vary over a hundred CFS in a single day, at all times of the year.  There are also periods of flows as low as 60 CFS.  At times this summer flows in the Crooked River were low enough to not even be measurable on OWRD’s gauges.  Those same gauges reported temperatures as high as 90 degrees (F) when the flows could be measured.  Flows in Wychus Creek regularly exceed state temperature standards.  How is this a success?  If 180 CFS of the mitigation cap has been used, where is the mitigation water?  It does not appear to be instream in any “significant” fashion based on what the gauges report.

I believe that fish, wildlife, and recreational users need flows that never go below an acceptable minimum at any time to meet the goals of the program which is to protect state scenic waterways.  Measuring flows as averages masks when they are low enough to kill fish and wildlife or make the river unsuitable for recreational use.  Like us, fish and other forms of aquatic life need oxygen to breathe every day, not just most of the time.  How exactly is OWRD measuring success?

Another issue is that the amount of mitigation required is based on the concept of “consumptive use”, but the draft report offers no evidence for the listed “consumptive use coefficients”.  The concept makes intuitive sense, and probably occurs in places.  Unlined irrigation canals, for example, do leak water and it appears that water makes it back to the aquifer (although far downstream from the point of diversion).  I believe that the volume of water and saturation that occurs in a canal or at a wastewater percolation pond are exceptions.  The very dry soil conditions in the high desert, especially in our frequently occurring drought conditions, leads me to question the amount of aquifer recharge occurring outside of a few places.  Just how much water sprinkled on a lawn, or an agricultural field, really makes its way down to the aquifer?  What evidence are these coefficients based on?

In my mind, this is very important.  If a gallon of water is pumped out of the ground but only 40% of that is replaced by mitigation water (the figure for municipal use), and the other 60% does not eventually return to a river, then the program will never meet its goals. 

OWRD also does not take into consideration the quality of the water being used for mitigation.  I understand that water quality is not explicitly part of the Mitigation Program, but it should be.  The State Scenic Waterway Act states that the best uses of a scenic waterway are for recreation, fish, and wildlife.  Cold, clean spring water replaced with warm, possibly polluted water stored for irrigation is not an equal replacement.  Not for fish, not for wildlife, and not for recreation.

I also understand that “exempt” wells are not covered by the mitigation program, but they too should be.  There are over 21,000 exempt wells in the Basin, I own one of them.  Using data from the now complete Deschutes Basin Work Group, data I obtained from the City of Bend, and your consumptive use coefficients, I have calculated that exempt wells likely use at least as much, if not more, water than the City of Bend.  This is a huge drain on groundwater that clearly impacts scenic waterway flows in the Basin.

Thank you for your consideration of these comments,

Yancy Lind