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 »