Pumping Water from Lake Billy Chinook: Too Many Unknowns

North Unit Irrigation District (NUID) is working on plans to pump up to 400 CFS of water from Lake Billy Chinook (LBC) for use by their patrons.  The Bend Bulletin recently had a positive story about it as well as an editorial endorsing the idea.  This could be an attractive idea but there are simply too many unknowns to have an informed opinion, and there are reasons for concern.  The devil is in the details, and we don’t know the details.

My first reaction is that a pumping station at LBC will be another expensive taxpayer funded project for private benefit, may shift water availability and quality issues from one part of the Deschutes River to another, and would not be necessary if the core issues of the water scarcity crisis were addressed.  Water waste and misappropriation is our disease. Do we need to spend another $400M of taxpayer dollars for pumping on top of the $1B dollars already needed for canal piping to cure it?

The Deschutes River is broken into three segments: the Upper Deschutes starts at the headwaters near Little Lava Lake and extends to Benham Falls, the Middle flows from there down to LBC, and the Lower is from the Pelton Reregulating Dam to the mouth at the Columbia River.  All three sections suffer from significant environmental degradation due to reduced flows and elevated temperatures.  In each segment and its tributaries, fish species have become extirpated (locally extinct) or seriously degraded, others are currently threatened with the same fate.

The Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan is focused on improving flows in the Upper Deschutes.  If the irrigators fulfill their part of the agreement, many years from now there will be significantly increased flows in that segment.  The same is not true, however, for the Middle or Lower Deschutes.

The HCP provides no provision for additional flows in the Middle or Lower Deschutes during irrigation season when irrigators divert most of the water from the Deschutes just above and in Bend.  In the spring and fall the Middle Deschutes below Bend can flow at levels only 5% of its historical average.  In the heat of summer, it is closer to 10%.  These low flows and resulting high water temperatures have had a devastating impact on fish and wildlife for over 100 years.

If the NUID proposal adds water to the Middle Deschutes during irrigation season, that would be welcome news.  This seems unlikely.  The HCP calls for increased flows in the Upper Deschutes during the winter, not during irrigation season.  If the idea is to shift storage from Wickiup Reservoir to LBC, it would have to occur in the winter when Wickiup is filled.  This would provide more winter water for Oregon Spotted Frogs in the Upper Deschutes, but the irrigators are already committed to providing that.

Like the Middle Deschutes, the Lower suffers from low flows and high temperatures.  Steelhead, chinook salmon, sockeye salmon, pacific lamprey, and bull trout in the Lower are all suffering in part from irrigation withdrawals in the Middle.  To be fair, there are many other issues also impacting these fish, but water availability and quality are serious problems that will only get worse as our planet continues to heat up.  Will pumping 400 CFS of water out of LBC during the summer when input flows are low make things even worse on the already degraded Lower Deschutes?

Wickiup is the second largest reservoir in Oregon in terms of water storage.  How much additional capacity is in LBC to store water?  Have the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs endorsed this idea?  What about Portland General Electric?  PGE uses the water in LBC to generate hydro power, they also have specific targets for water quality that must be met at different times of the year.  How will this proposal impact them?  It is likely that the intake facility for the proposed pumping station would be deep in the reservoir, which means it would take cold water at a time when PGE needs it to meet temperature targets for release into the Lower Deschutes.  There is already a shortage of cold water in LBC for release into the Lower Deschutes.

There is not enough information available to understand what is being proposed.  Until then, I believe the focus should be on the core issues of the Basin’s water problems, which are waste and misappropriation.