If you are a local water policy geek like I am, then it’s time to start hearing about the Deschutes Basin Water Collaborative, of which I am a member. The now complete Basin Study Work Group was a multi-year research project that dove deep into Basin water issues. The Collaborative is an even larger effort to implement some of the solutions that BSWG pointed to. DBWC has been around for a while now, but it’s moving slowly and still getting it’s footing. Some DBWC members presented to the Oregon House Committee On Water 2 weeks ago, and it’s worth watching (it’s the first 40 minutes). The speakers provided a reasonable overview of Basin water issues and collaborative efforts, but were careful to accentuate the positive. I fully acknowledge that some reaches of some rivers and streams are now in better shape than in the past, but the scale of the really fundamental work that needs to be done, at a much quicker pace than currently being discussed, was not addressed.
Sadly, as I have written about many times, it is irrigation season and once again the Middle Deschutes below Bend is being killed. According to the US Bureau of Reclamation gauge, the Middle is currently flowing at 64 CFS. Prior to the installation of upstream dams and irrigation withdrawals, this section of river would be flowing around 1,200 CFS. Not only are the flows lethally low, they are erratic (see the chart below). The photo above is from a Central Oregon Irrigation District email last month that provided the irrigation startup schedule to their patrons. I was struck by their use of this image, as I will explain below.Read More »
On April 3rd, the Bend Bulletin ran a very misleading article, Deschutes River level to rise as irrigation season begins, so I am glad they printed Tod Heisler’s response. The Bulletin’s article omitted much and contained inaccuracies, like showing a picture of the river at Sawyer park and claiming that the river will rise there when it will actually fall. Tod did a good job of providing a more complete and accurate description of the irrigator’s impact on the river.
In preparation for irrigation season, over the past few days flows were rapidly increased in the Upper Deschutes River with releases from Wickiup Reservoir (which is currently only at 58% of capacity). While you may think increased flows are good, such a rapid increase is very destructive, by washing mud and silt into the river from river banks and bottom that have been exposed all winter. Note that the current flow of 370 CFS will be increased to about 1,800 CFS over the next 30-45 days.
Right now, the Middle Deschutes is at 48 CFS. In the 16 or so years that I have tracked flows, this is the lowest I have seen. So much for all the posturing on the part of the irrigation districts about caring for the environment. When push comes to shove, they get all the water. They didn’t even slowly ramp flows down to give fish a chance to move out of side channels. The river dropped from 117 CFS to 48 CFS in only 2 hours. We have known for years that drought and water shortages will come but little has been done to prepare for it.
UPDATE: Since hitting a low of 48 CFS around 9 AM this morning, the flows were returned to around 120 CFS at 12:30 PM. So, it looks like I jumped the gun somewhat in my post. Nevertheless, a 50%+ drop in less than 2 hours was more than concerning and will create environmental havoc. Like I have said so many times before, just like us, fish and other aquatic life need to breathe all the time, not just most of the time. It is also the case that very little has been done to prepare for the hot, dry future that we are going to live in and the irrigators continue to control almost all of the water in the Deschutes from the headwaters almost to Lake Billy Chinook.
One of the primary disagreements between the irrigators and conservation groups is the relative importance between canal piping and improving efficiency in the use of water. For a variety of reasons, the irrigators are focused on piping their main canals. The Basin Study Work Group, however, showed that water could be more cheaply and quickly saved via other techniques including the use of modern irrigation methods and simple water conservation. I saw a great example of this while on a hike along the Deschutes yesterday.Read More »
Tod Heisler has a great column in today’s Bend Bulletin titled, “The fallacy of in-conduit hydropower”. It’s worth reading, but the gist is that hydro power plants installed into piped canals encourages the continued overuse of water, even when it is not needed, in order to keep the power plant running. Of course, this maintains the irrigator’s legacy of keeping water levels in local rivers and streams below what is needed for a healthy ecosystem.
Swalley Irrigation District and the Deschutes River Conservancy recently announced the completion of piping a 3 mile stretch of canal which will restore about 1.8 cubic feet a second (CFS) of flow to the Middle Deschutes during peak irrigation season. 1.8 CFS is about 13.5 gallons. Picture 5-gallon buckets, two full and one 2/3rds-full. Put them on their side and that’s the size of the stream they would create. Restoring water to the river is always good news, but this announcement is a great example of the complexity of the issue.Read More »
I have been writing for years about the water crisis that is looming in Central Oregon. Global heating, booming growth, and antiquated water policy is already impacting fish and wildlife. The persistence of shortages for agriculture are now becoming apparent to even the most fervent deniers. Municipal shortages are clearly on the horizon. I am heartened that the new ownership of The Bulletin is tackling this issue. Today they had two good articles on the topic. “How climate has changed farming the the Northwest” is a reasonable overview of the impacts of smaller snow pack, a topic I frequent. Missing from the article is a discussion of the impact of over pumping groundwater and lack of recharge which is equally concerning. They also ran a story about water rights marketing in Washington in the print edition, but failed to put it online (I found it here). This is exactly the approach that the Basin Study Work Group said would be a cheaper, faster way than piping to return water to the Deschutes River. If it can work in Washington, why not here in Central Oregon?
Today the Bulletin ran a guest column, “$1 billion is too much to give irrigation districts in these times“, by Tod Heisler of Central Oregon Land Watch. Clearly, I agree with Tod that the current plan is the wrong one. My first letter to The Bulletin criticizing water and canal management by local irrigation districts was over 10 years ago. Hopefully we can get past identifying the problem and finding real solutions to our local water issues before lack of adequate funding, a growing population, and a heating planet create a full-blown crisis. Of course, it already is a crisis for local fish and wildlife.
Next week the City Club of Central Oregon will host a discussion on the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan. Initially billed as a debate between Tod Heisler of Central Oregon Land Watch and a representative from the irrigation districts it now features Bridget Moran of the US Fish & Wildlife Service standing in for the irrigators. I guess none of them wanted to stand up for their own plan. I’m not sure what this debate will be about now. What I do know is that this discussion will be fundamentally unsatisfying regardless of who is on the stage.Read More »
Central Oregon Irrigation District is asking for another round of taxpayer funding to pipe a small section of their 400+ miles of canals. This time the request is for $42M to pipe 7.9 miles of canal. Yesterday Central Oregon Land Watch posted their analysis of this proposal. Per COLW, $42M equates to “$568,000 per irrigator”. I wish I got this sort of taxpayer subsidy. The Basin Study Work Group clearly showed ways to save the same amount of water for 25% of the cost of main canal piping. WaterWatch has pointed out that there are no guarantees in this latest piping proposal that any conserved water be permanently returned to the upper Deschutes. And, as always, there is no mention of increasing flows in the middle Deschutes during irrigation season. The song remains the same…
Central Oregon Irrigation District continues to move forward with piping their main canals. Two days ago a public review meeting for the next section was announced. There are clearly good things about this proposal. Piping a leaky canal will save water that can be shared with farmers in North Unit Irrigation District. Nevertheless, I remain a critic. We taxpayers are funding this improvement project for the benefit of private interests. Further, it is not the most efficient way to spend our money. More water can be saved, cheaper, and more quickly using other approaches. This particular train seems to have left the station, however.
Last June, Portland General Electric released a comprehensive, multiyear water quality study of Lake Billy Chinook, the rivers that supply it, and the lower Deschutes River into which water is released. Among other things, the report showed that the Crooked River contains significant amounts of pollution. This pollution combined with sunlight generates suspended algae on the surface of Lake Billy Chinook which is subsequently released into Lake Simtutus and then the lower Deschutes River. Algae blooms are increasing in occurrence, leading the Oregon Health Authority to warn last June that “harmful algae blooms” could “routinely develop in the lake”.
One of the shortcomings in the Habitat Conservation Plan is lack of adequate consideration for water quality. Clearly, high temperatures and pollution can have adverse impacts on fish and the aquatic environment, including mortality (“take”). Irrigation return flows are “covered activities” but the HCP does not adequately examine impacts on water quality from agricultural runoff or provide for minimum standards in covered waterways.Read More »
The US Department of Agriculture performs periodic nationwide surveys of agriculture that are broken down to the county level. The latest survey was released in April with data as of 2017. It clearly shows that most irrigators in Deschutes County are not “farmers” in any traditional sense of word.
This detailed report says that there are 1,484 farms in Deschutes County, 1,269 are irrigated. Half of these farms are under 11 acres in size. Only 216 are over 50 acres. 685 of the farms have annual sales of less than $2,500. The average farm had losses of -$12,866. Irrigators currently take 90% of the water in the upper Deschutes but in Deschutes County farming is often a lifestyle choice or hobby, not the viable production of agricultural products.Read More »
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.Read More »
For years I have argued that Central Oregon water rights currently favor less productive lands, leave the most economically viable farmlands at risk, and should be redistributed in a way that offers the most societal value. There are ways to do this that would not leave current rights holders “high and dry”. I have also argued that the beneficial use standard must be clearly defined, simply spreading water on the ground so that it is green should not qualify. So, I was pleasantly surprised to see the guest column in the Bend Bulletin this morning from a farmer in Madras making essentially the same arguments.Read More »
Water in Central Oregon is a critical issue for people, fish and wildlife, our recreation and tourism industry, farming, etc. To their credit, the Bend Bulletin frequently publishes opinion pieces on this topic from a variety of individuals, including myself. My submissions are thoroughly fact checked and I often have to provide supporting materials for statements I make. I wish the same journalistic principles had been applied to an opinion piece titled “Collaboration on water is harder than picking a fight”, published on June 7th.Read More »
I recently went on one of my favorite cross county mountain bike rides and dropped down to see how the Tumalo Irrigation District Feed Canal piping is progressing. Here is a photo of a section that has been finished. The old canal is now lined with a pipe buried under all that dirt.
That is the title of a guest column that appeared today in the Bend Bulletin. It was written by Tod Heisler who lead the Deschutes River Conservancy for 15 years where he attempted to cooperatively work with irrigators to more efficiently use water and return savings to local rivers and streams. While Tod and the DRC had some minor success in this endeavor it has not yielded the needed results. The upper and middle Deschutes continue to be significantly damaged by irrigation practices that have largely remained the same for a hundred years. Tod has now joined Central Oregon Land Watch in a new attempt to initiate change from outside the system. I agree with the viewpoint in this column and welcome him to the community agitating for water reform in the Deschutes Basin.Read More »
Today the Bend Bulletin published an opinion piece I wrote after they previously rejected a more pointed version. I was not surprised by the rejection, as that version pointed out that the success of irrigation districts as a special interest group comes from extensive contributions to politicians, which is not the sort of thing that The Bulletin wants to touch. Thankfully, they did publish my softened column as well as this excellent letter yesterday from George Wuerthner which also addresses local water issues.
Here’s the latest graph of flows in the middle Deschutes below North Dam in Bend near the Riverhouse. On November 26 the river got down to 63.8 cfs. On a relative basis, that’s worse than 20 cfs in the upper Deschutes below Wickiup. Years of discussion and “cooperation” at the Basin Study Work Group between the irrigators, government agencies, and various other groups has made no improvement in how the river is managed. For the second time this year the irrigators have killed the middle Deschutes (visit the prior post for a more detailed discussion of this topic).
The Basin Study Work Group was a multiyear study of water issues, primarily centered on the upper Deschutes River, which concluded last week. The Deschutes River Conservancy did an excellent job of shepherding the effort, producing valuable studies that added to our knowledge of how water is managed and strategies that could be used to conserve it, although none of them are required to be implemented. The final meeting ended with participants congratulating each other for a job well done which, for me, crystallized the failures of the process, including the catastrophic draining of Wickiup Reservoir this summer.
Last week I sent an email to the Bend Bulletin pointing out that their coverage of low levels in Wickiup Reservoir was inaccurate when it assigned partial blame to the endangered Oregon Spotted Frog. Flows for the frog out of Wickiup into the upper Deschutes River are in the winter only and Wickiup was completely full when irrigation season began. I was happy the Bulletin published a new article today that correctly identifies last winter’s low snow pack as the culprit for low water levels, but this new article also fails to address another important issue. Why where no mitigating actions taken? There are strategies that could have reduced the draw down. Read More »
Wickiup and Crane Prairie reservoirs on the upper Deschutes River were constructed to hold water for irrigation releases from Bend to Madras. Wickiup is currently at its lowest level since 1952, and it may get lower. As of September 20th Wickiup is only 2% full. Until recently, Wickiup had some of the best kokanee fishing in the state and excellent trout fishing as well. This popular fishery is now gone.Read More »
As I discussed in this post, Tumalo Irrigaion District is asking taxpayers to pay the full $42M+ cost of piping their irrigation canals. They claim in their Draft Environmental Assessment that piping will conserve about 48 cfs (page xxvii) which they will return in-stream. BUT, page D-20 of the appendix contains a table showing increased water deliveries to irrigators after piping is complete. Where does this water come from? Why is it not being returned to the river? Why is on-farm conservation not being pursued to REDUCE usage? You have until May 22 to submit your comments.
Once again, I was criticized for making statements that readers believed to be erroneous, this time in my post on Tumalo Irrigation District’s piping plans. I did provide footnotes and links to source material but I guess that was not enough. Today, a slightly shorter version of the post was published in The Bend Bulletin after being independently fact checked by them. I did have to add the word “most” to one sentence, but otherwise the only changes were for brevity to fit their 650 word limit. We can all have our own opinions, but we can’t have our own facts.
Central Oregon Irrigation Districts have spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars piping their canals. They plan to request hundreds of millions more . A current example is Tumalo Irrigation District’s application for funding  their next piping phase which will cover 68.8 miles, take 11 years to implement, and is expected to cost $42,689,000, all paid by taxpayers . You can comment on TID’s plan until May 22 by visiting www.oregonwatershedplans.org.
I was recently criticized for not sufficiently valuing the economic contribution of agriculture to the Central Oregon economy. Some readers felt that the value provided by farmers justified the damage to our local rivers caused by irrigation withdrawals. I am reminded of an old quote that goes something like “we can have our own opinions but we can’t have our own facts”, so here are some facts. You can form your own opinion. I again want to stress that I am not advocating for the forced elimination of water deliveries to any water right holder. As I have written about on this blog there are affordable and relatively quick solutions that allocate water to irrigators while also partially restoring rivers. I believe it is time to implement water policies that ensure our economic vitality for the next 100 years, not that reflect the past 100.Read More »
Today the Bulletin published a column I wrote about some of the hindrances faced by landowners who would like to forgo their allocation of irrigation water and help restore the Deschutes. In short, the irrigation districts would rather keep the water in their systems. There can also be tax penalties for not irrigating in some cases. Of course, we taxpayers continue to subsidize the irrigation districts. It does not seem right to me. See below for the full column.Read More »
Wildlife News recently posted an article titled “Deschutes River–Irrigation Canal or Wild River?” written by Bend resident George Wuerthner. I believe his post is worth a thoughtful read. He makes an argument that I have been making for years about who owns public water and who should pay for it. Further, he echoes a criticism I have made of the Deschutes River Conservancy and he extends that criticism to newcomer Coalition for the Deschutes. While I am deeply sympathetic to the thrust of the article, my own views have become more nuanced. Like with so many complex issues, the elegant and morally correct solution currently looks unattainable and compromise can make for strange bedfellows. Read more below. I will soon be making more posts about the political/policy side of restoring flows in the Deschutes.Read More »
In case you missed the BSWG presentation, or just wanted to take another look, here are the posters they had scattered around the room. There’s lots of data in here, the summary is that there is plenty of water in the Deschutes Basin to meet the demands of irrigators and cities along with fish & wildlife. The problem is how can it be reallocated from the irrigators (who have 90% of all available water) to other needs without harming agriculture? The issues are financial and cultural but they can be overcome if the public demands it.
The Basin Study Work Group is coming to the end of their multi-year study of water needs and availability in the upper Deschutes Basin and holding public meetings to discuss the results. This is an important event for local anglers and I encourage you to attend. BWSG shows what is possible in terms of restoring flows in the upper Deschutes River but it does not require any actions be taken. Public pressure can change that.Read More »
One of the most important issues for anglers and river lovers in the Deschutes Basin is restoring flows in the upper Deschutes River. This is a complex topic where I will spend significant time posting with explanations and analysis, but last week the eight Central Oregon irrigation districts and the City of Prineville presented the outline of their proposed Habitat Conservation Plan for the upper Deschutes Basin. There were a few reasonable ideas presented but overall it was bad news for the upper Deschutes. Read More »
One of the most important issues for local anglers and river lovers is the dismal state of the upper Deschutes River (above Bend). This is a complex topic that I will cover in depth over time, but for those of you who have some familiarity with it, my Upper Deschutes Backgrounder could be of interest.