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?

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SaveArnoldCanal.org

“Give me a one-handed economist. All my economists say ‘on one hand…’, then ‘but on the other…'” – Harry Truman

Save Arnold Canal

I was recently contacted by a few people from a group calling themselves Save Arnold Canal. I encourage you to look at their website, especially the two videos. They have done an excellent job describing their opposition to piping the Arnold Irrigation District (AID) main canal. Keep reading for my thoughts on this thorny issue.

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Steelhead Fishing Closure: Too Little Too Late?

By now you should be aware that two days ago ODFW partially closed steelhead fishing on a few rivers, including parts of the Deschutes during September. For the past three years I have been writing that this should occur, and not just for part of the Deschutes for a single month. Here’s a post I made just 3 weeks ago illustrating how “bleak” the returns have been. In their press release on August 27th, ODFW stated that steelhead returns so far this year are the lowest since counts began in 1938. As of August 20, steelhead counts at Sherars Falls on the Deschutes near Maupin were only 1/3 the already low 2020 counts. Above is a graph showing unclipped steelhead returns over Bonneville Dam, fish destined for all the tributaries of the Columbia. Note that unclipped mostly means wild, but not always. Some unclipped fish are actually hatchery fish that are part of steelhead reintroduction efforts, like in the Upper Deschutes Basin. Also note that the 10 year average in the graph is getting pretty low as the last 10 years have seen poor returns.

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Misplaced Anger

The Bulletin recently ran a story about farmers and others around Madras blaming the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan for reducing water deliveries this year.  Even though irrigators will continue to get most of the water in the Upper Deschutes for many years to come, this group claims there should be “balance” in water allocations.  I guess they want 100% of the water, like they took until recently.  This group has hired out-of-state, anti-environmental attorneys to have the HCP changed. 

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Spring Chinook, the Crooked River, and the HCP

Here’s more on the extreme low flows on the Crooked River which is currently at 9 CFS below Prineville. As of yesterday, 3 adult spring chinook have swam through the fish ladder at Opal Springs near the mouth of the Crooked River. They won’t get far, however, as the river is impassable for fish their size not far upstream. Below are a couple of photos of the river a little below the North Unit Irrigation District diversion near Smith Rocks. Why doesn’t the Habitat Conservation Plan require flows needed for these reintroduced fish? Probably because they are not yet listed as endangered species in the Deschutes Basin, but steelhead are, and their fry need higher, cleaner flows to survive.

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Crooked River 2021 Flows

We can now make a prediction about how the Crooked River will look for the remainder of the year.  The executive summary is that the Wild & Scenic section below Bowman Dam, where most anglers spend their time, down to the City of Prineville (CoP), will have good flows during irrigation season and will have low, but survivable flows in non-irrigation season.  Below CoP is another story.  Flows below CoP will be extremely low, lethally so at times, during irrigation season but then improve during non-irrigation season.  Read on for a detailed explanation.

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Misleading Bulletin Article on the Deschutes

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.

It Hurts the Upper Deschutes, Too

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.

Conservation Groups Oppose Simpson’s Snake River Plan

A frequent topic of this blog is the dismal state of Columbia Basin anadromous fish, including those in the Deschutes Basin. Among the most desperate are populations in the Snake River where dramatic action must be quickly taken to ensure their survival. The science is clear that without removing the lower four Snake River dams, some Snake River salmon and steelhead populations will soon become locally extinct (or “extirpated”, to use the more accurate term). A proposal has recently emerged to remove the dams, but as I previously wrote, it has some unacceptable provisions. While many conservation groups are ignoring the truly egregious components and rallying support for the plan, two days ago a coalition of other groups came out in opposition. Here’s a brief summary of the issue.

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Brown Bullhead Catfish in Crane Prairie Reservoir

Brown Bullhead Catfish

Crane Prairie Reservoir was built in 1922 as an irrigation reservoir; the water is held back by the first of many dams on the Deschutes River.  Crane is a favorite for anglers in the Central Oregon Cascades targeting large, hard fighting “Cranebows”.  These native rainbow trout are either wild, spawning in the Upper Deschutes above the reservoir, or hatchery-raised from originally wild stock.  Only triploid (sterile) hatchery fish are now released into the reservoir, eliminating the potential for breeding with wild fish.

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“The Endangered Species Act Does Not Require Recovery, Just A Recovery Plan.”

Contrary to prior press releases and news reports, a final decision on all aspects of the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan has not been made.  Final documents were made available only two days ago (1/11/2021).  There’s a ton of material there, some documents have multiple volumes, so have a fresh bottle of wine ready, maybe two.  Below is a brief overview.  Note that while a “record of decision” has been made to issue an Incidental Take Permit for Oregon Spotted Frog and Bull Trout later this month, the HCP is still under review for issuance of an ITP for steelhead. 

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Misleading Bend Bulletin Article

I am thankful of the Bend Bulletin’s continuing coverage of local water issues.  Unfortunately, the article in yesterday’s paper, Districts make last-ditch effort to conserve water for Deschutes River, was somewhat misleading.  While it is true that plans call for over $100M to be spent to install canal piping, those are almost exclusively federal taxpayer funds, not irrigator funds.  That should have been highlighted at the beginning of the article, not buried at the end.

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Things That Make You Go Hmm…

I have been asked why there has been so little discussion about the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan now that it is final, so here are a few quick comments. It does appear that there have been marginal improvements in the HCP compared to the last draft. There are loopholes, however, so it’s debatable. Regardless, as someone who advocates for fish, wildlife, and river recreation, the HCP remains deeply disappointing. Flows in the Upper Deschutes will be increased far too slowly and remain unstable. There will be no real improvement in the even more disastrous flows in the Middle Deschutes. The Crooked River will continue to suffer from both low flows and high levels of pollution from agricultural runoff.

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“Atmospheric Thirst”, Drought, and the HCP

Local ecologist and wildfire expert George Wuerthner alerted me to a new report publish by the American Geophysical Union with the unwieldy title “Projected Changes in Reference Evapotranspiration in California and Nevada: Implications for Drought and Wildland Fire Danger“. While Central Oregon is not specifically covered, it is obvious from the report that it applies to us as well. The bottom line is that global warming is going to increase and strengthen the extended state of drought we have been experiencing as well as increase and strengthen local wildfire danger. George asks how will this impact the HCP and our management of local rivers? What breaks when there is not enough water to meet all the defined needs?

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Habitat Conservation Plan is Final

The Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan was officially made final yesterday. You can read the plan on the US Fish & Wildlife Service website. Local USFWS folks have told me that little changed from the last draft. I have been closely tracking the HCP (reading, going to meetings, making official comments, writing about it, etc.) for over 10 years (!) and can’t overemphasize how disappointing the final product is. At this point, litigation is inevitable. I have years of HCP posts on this blog, but will try to provide an easier to digest summary after I get through the final version (it’s thousands of pages).

Ochoco Irrigation District Canal Piping Post – Another Boondoggle?

Ochoco Irrigation District is the latest in Central Oregon to apply for federal funding to upgrade their water distribution system.  Details of the proposal as well as information on how to submit comments by September 30th are online.  The “Draft Watershed Plan – Environmental Assessment” (Draft-EA) is 155 pages long but easy to read.  I encourage you to go through the materials yourself and come to your own conclusions, but here are my comments.  Like the previous proposals from other local irrigators, it’s a mixed bag.  The common belief is that canal piping is good, and in theory I agree, but the devil is always in the details.

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Another Water Waste Example

This appeared on Nextdoor this morning. No mention of wanting to grow anything, only a statement that they are going to use water just so they don’t lose their water right. This happens all the time. Laws and policies need to be changed to protect the Deschutes River.

Irrigator Water Shortages: Who is to Blame?

As reported by The Bulletin on August 28th, Lone Pine Irrigation District is the latest local district to run out of water to deliver to their patrons.  This is terrible news, no one wants to see farmers losing their livelihoods.  Water is a complicated topic in Central Oregon with many factors contributing to the shortage. Unfortunately, rather than addressing the real issues, Terry Smith, chairman of the board for LPID, places the blame on the Endangered Species Act.

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Piping vs Water Conservation

Excess irrigation return, not a creek.

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.

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“The fallacy of in-conduit hydropower”

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.

“$1 billion is too much to give irrigation districts in these times”

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.

 

What about the Middle Deschutes?

On March 30th the Bulletin had a front page article about some of the ecological problems facing the Upper Deschutes.  In response, I quickly submitted a guest column pointing out that the Middle Deschutes is suffering from the same issues.  They have not published my column, so here it is for your consideration.Read More »

City Club HCP Presentation and the Titanic

The Titanic

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 »

CTWS Comments on the HCP and EIS

CTWS Logo

I have read many of the substantial comments on the Draft Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan and associated Draft Environmental Impact Statement.  The comments from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs illustrate just how tangled an issue this is.  Like many others, the Tribes are extremely critical of the draft HCP and EIS, but in a unique way.  While most critical comments ask for more water more quickly in the upper Deschutes in the winter, the Tribes want LESS water than proposed.  Keep reading to understand why.Read More »

Deschutes Basin HCP Comments

Yesterday was the last day to file comments on the proposed Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan.  You can now see all 1,681 of them here.  You can also sign up to get email updates.  I scanned the list and it looks like the majority were form letters.  Nothing wrong with that, it shows the public is concerned.  I look forward to finding and reading the comments from organizations like WaterWatch, Central Oregon Land Watch, ODFW, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, etc.

 

Some Things Never Change

Bulletin 4.28.59

Here’s an editorial from 1959, written by the editor of The Bulletin, discussing why a new irrigation dam should not be built on the upper Deschutes at Benham Falls.  The arguments about water for agriculture versus other uses have not changed in 60 years.  Mr. Chandler states that ag wastes too much water and is not as valuable as other economic uses.  Same as it ever was.

 

A Great Read on the HCP

Alfafa-and-irrigation-sprinkers-near-Bend-OR-George-Wuerthner-4150-768x512

George Wuerthner has published another great article on the environment, this time on the Habitat Conservation Plan.  It’s a worthwhile read.

Why are irrigators legally permitted to degrade our river? Every year tens of thousands of fish are killed in the Deschutes River due to Ag water withdrawal, not to mention the overall degradation of the river ecosystem from sedimentation, channel widening, and radical changes in flow regimes. If a fisherman or fisherwoman were to keep one or two extra fish over the daily limit, they would be fined for “poaching,” but if irrigators kill tens of thousands of fish and destroy the river channel, they suffer no legal consequences.

What about Water Quality in the Habitat Conservation Plan?

20190322_171726

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 »

Irrigation does NOT Mean Agriculture in Deschutes County

canal

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 HCP and the Future of the Deschutes

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 »

PGE Water Quality Study

Portland General Electric’s long awaited lower Deschutes River water quality study was recently released.  At over 600 pages it took me some time to get through, here are my initial impressions.  This study is critically important to the ongoing effort to reintroduce anadromous fish into the upper Deschutes Basin and the operation of the Selective Water Withdrawal tower.  Also note that the Deschutes River Alliance’s lawsuit against PGE/CTWS (dismissed but under appeal) is based on allegations of water quality violations.  The author of the water quality study will present and answer questions at the upcoming Fisheries Workshop. Read More »

Farmers Agreeing with Me?

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 »

The Osprey and a Critique

The latest issue of The Osprey is now available.  If you like to read scientific articles about steelhead and salmon conservation, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, then this is the journal for you.  I encourage you to subscribe and help keep them going.  This issue has a couple of articles that once again illustrate the peril facing anadromous fish in many PacNW river systems.  It also contains an article on the lower Deschutes River which I found problematic.  Read More »

Middle Deschutes Mismanagement

Today the US Fish & Wildlife Service held a public update meeting on the Habitat Conservation Plan status.  I’ve written extensively on the HCP in this blog but, briefly, it is an application by Central Oregon irrigation districts and the City of Prineville to continue to withdraw water from local rivers while incidentally “taking” (killing) endangered species like bull trout, steelhead, and the Oregon Spotted Frog.  The meeting had a wealth of information but the shocker for me was an admission by the irrigation districts that they have been badly mismanaging flows in the middle Deschutes.Read More »

Bend Bulletin Article on Crooked River Flows

A reporter at the Bend Bulletin saw my post on the potential for a fish kill on the Crooked River this winter and wrote this article.  If you’ve ever been quoted for an article you know how it can be a frustrating experience.  So it almost goes without saying that I would have written the story differently but I think the reporter did a good job overall of capturing the big picture of what is currently happening on the Crooked River and the challenges it faces this winter.

 

 

More on Wickiup

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 »

Why was Wickiup drained dry?

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 »

BSWG Wrap Up & Public Discussion

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 »

Impact on the Crooked River

The proposed Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan includes a section on the Crooked River (see pages 34 to 37).  While I have heard some in the angling and conservation communities speak favorably about the proposal for the Crooked, I am not in agreement.

In summary, my concerns are:

  • There is no scientific justification for the 50 cfs average minimum target during the winter and it is unclear what is meant by “average”.
  • There is no provision for reducing the incidence of gas bubble disease.
  • There is no mention of water quality.
  • It does not address the low flow, high temperature problem that exists below the Wild & Scenic section during irrigation season.

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Water Rights and the UGB

As Central Oregonians know, the City of Bend is expanding and incorporating land into its urban growth boundary, land that may have irrigation water rights.  This land will primarily be used for housing or commercial purposes and, with perhaps the exception of the Park District, will no longer need irrigation water.  Water from one of the three existing municipal water systems will be used instead.  Unfortunately, the irrigators are not returning the now unneeded water back to the Deschutes. Read More »

Bad News for the Upper Deschutes

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 »