A Tale of 2 Rivers (both the Deschutes)

Middle Deschutes near Riley Ranch. 62 CFS on 5/1/21. Go the the COLW blog to watch the video.

Tod Heisler at Central Oregon Land Watch wrote a really good post for their blog, “Drought and the Deschutes: Looking at the same river twice“. It succinctly covers a topic I write about a lot: the dramatic difference in flows above and below Bend during irrigation season. I highly recommend it. Here’s some more color to this discussion: many local groups promote the Middle Deschutes as a success story. In fact, just yesterday I was in a meeting where a local prominent NGO and a government employee did just that. Once again, I lost my cool. Historically, the Middle Deschutes as it flows through Bend should be somewhere over 1,200 CFS right now. A few days ago it was at 62 CFS. That’s 5%* of the historical flow. True, 62 CFS is better than nothing, but we have a very long way to go before this stretch of the river is healthy again.

(*Yes, I made a stupid math error in the first version of this post, now corrected. I need a proof reader / editor sometimes.)

Water in the Deschutes Basin: 2020 Hindsight – What Happened?

An empty Wikiup Reservoir.

For a couple of years I have been attending/viewing presentations put on by the Central Oregon Geoscience Society (COGS). I am not a geologist, but the talks have been educational and are occasionally about topics of particular interest to me like local hydrology and hydrogeomorphology. On April 27, Kyle Gorman, long time Central Oregon Region Manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department, gave a presentation titled, Water in the Deschutes Basin: 2020 Hindsight – What Happened? (Click on the title to see a replay.) Kyle discussed local hydrology and water use by irrigators. His presentation even had a couple of informative slides I had not seen before. (Check out the “CDA” graph at about minute 40.) It was a good overview of water issues many of us have been tracking for years, and I recommend viewing the replay of his talk, and perhaps joining COGS if you are interested in presentations like this.

I was surprised, however, by Kyle’s dismissal of global warming as a causal factor in current water shortages. Keep reading for comments on that.

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Middle Deschutes Killed Again

Credit: Central Oregon Irrigation District email.

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.

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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.

Irrigation Season Begins

It appears that yesterday was the first day of this year’s irrigation season in Central Oregon. Once again, local irrigators showed their disregard for the Deschutes River, dropping the river below Bend from 470 CFS to 107 CFS in 10 hours. Such a rapid, deep decline in flows strands and kills fish along with the aquatic insects the fish feed on. Of course, this has been going on for over 100 years and is why the Middle Deschutes is in such terrible shape. It also shows, once again, that without the threat of a lawsuit, the irrigators will not change their behavior. (Irrigation season is somewhat variable but partial deliveries start in early April and ramp up through mid May with full deliveries.)

No, We Are Not Moving Fast Enough On Water

Yancy Lind
A hatchery steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River.

My latest column appeared in the Bend Bulletin today. Once again, I appreciate their increased coverage of local conservation issues and occasionally letting me submit something. If you don’t have a subscription or have used you your free views for the month, here’s the text.


The Bulletin recently ran a column titled “Central Oregon Crossroads: Are we moving fast enough to protect our waterways?”.  I always appreciate water articles and commentary, but the column did not address numerous local issues.  Here’s a brief, partial overview.

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Airstrip Denied, At Least For Now

As I wrote last December, an application for a private airstrip between Bend and Redmond right next to the Deschutes River in an Exclusive Farm Use Zone has been submitted to Deschutes County. Today, notice was given that the application was denied but is subject to appeal. I believe this is the correct decision. Private airstrips are fine, but not if they are next to a river where people recreate, eagles nest, and mule deer and elk use for winter habitat.

A Private Airstrip Next to the Deschutes?

A new 2,000 foot long airstrip adjacent to the Deschutes River between Bend and Redmond is being proposed. The application is for a private airstrip, but commercial use is allowed.  Your favorite mapping program will show that 20925 Harper Road is nearly adjacent to the Maston trail system and the flight path will go over other houses.  I’m all for property rights, but this is something else.  Parts of Maston are seasonally closed to protect nesting eagles.  Nearby Cline Buttes Recreation Area is winter range for deer and elk.  Hikers, equestrians, and cyclists use these areas year round.  It’s not the best fishing, but I’ve hiked down to the river there.  Why do the desires of a single property owner supersede the needs of wildlife and the public’s tranquil use of this area?

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“The Big Muddy”

This morning I received an email titled “The big muddy” with the photo above and this text: “This is a photo of the Deschutes about 5 miles south of Sunriver at about 4:00 pm, September 15, 2020. I’m guessing that the emptying of Wickiup Reservoir has many years worth of sediments, accumulating at the bottom of the reservoir, now washing down stream.” Seems like a reasonable guess to me.

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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Middle Deschutes Carnage Continues

This week has seen multiple, abrupt 50%+ drops in the Middle Deschutes below the last irrigation diversion near the Mt. Washington bridge. Clearly, this is ecologically devastating to aquatic life. It is also arguably illegal. Enough senior water rights have been transferred to the river to keep flows around 120 CFS at this time of year. So far this week the river has been dropped to 48, 53, and 57 CFS. Oregon Water Resources Department says there is an issue with North Unit Irrigation District’s automated gates, but the damage is still being done.

Local Reservoir and River Levels

Here’s how our local reservoirs and rivers look as of the end of the day yesterday (click here for a direct link). Crane Prairie still has a lot of water as it is held fairly constant until late summer to maintain endangered species habitat. Haystack is nearly full as it is intermediate storage for North Unit Irrigation District. NUID’s main storage is Wickiup which will most likely be empty before the end of irrigation season. Prineville Reservoir is managed for both irrigation and fish. As of August 5th, it has 41,820 acre feet of irrigation water and 23,380 acre feet of “fish water”.

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Mea Culpa

I asked Jeremy Griffin, our local water master, what happened yesterday with the flows on the Middle Deschutes. He said the automatic gate for the NUID canal at the North Canal Dam “went wild” for a while. While my concern for the ecological damage that was caused by the huge, rapid drop is justified, I assumed that the drop was purposeful rather than accidental. That assumption was based on watching the irrigators create frequent, sudden drops for many years (although not quite as large). Nevertheless, I should have investigated it before making my post. For that, I apologize. I hope that they can get their equipment fixed, and soon.

Middle Deschutes Carnage! – UPDATE

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.

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.

“The Deschutes River’s beauty hides problems”

The Deschutes River’s beauty hides problems”, was an editorial in yesterday’s Bend Bulletin.  I continue to be pleased with the paper’s new commitment to environmental coverage.  The problems facing the Deschutes River are numerous, complex, and often rooted in decisions made a century ago.  Few people, or even some organizations claiming to be advocates for the river, really have a grasp of the broad range of interwoven issues: water law and rights, hydrology, global heating, tax policy, groundwater recharge, mitigation, economics, biology, etc.  It really is a fascinating area that I have been studying for over a decade.  In that context, I think the Bulletin’s editorial did a fine job of skimming the surface of a few current high-profile issues.  In the future, I hope they can provide broader and more nuanced coverage.

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Swalley Irrigation District Piping

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 »

“$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.

 

It’s Irrigation Season

Middle D 4.14.20

Today the Middle Deschutes below North Canal Dam was lowered to 74 CFS.  The average for this time of year is 470 CFS.  Historically it would be at least 1,000 CFS.   I took the first photo this afternoon just below the dam, the river has been turned into frog water and much of the bank and what was habitat has been exposed.  The second photo is at Sawyer Park.  Look at this entry to see the see a similar view 10 days ago when it was at 310 CFS.Read More »

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 »

Middle Deschutes Killed Again

Middle D 4.1.20

Unfortunately, I am given frequent reason to post about the environmental destruction to the Middle Deschutes from abrupt, drastic irrigation withdrawals.  Today is a particularly egregious example.  In 2 days flows in the river were increased from 410 to 600 CFS and then dropped to 250 CFS in just a few hours!  Where’s the news coverage showing all the stranded fish in the side channels in the middle?  Why don’t the irrigators slowly ramp down flows in the Middle Deschutes like they do in the Upper Deschutes?  Business as usual for the irrigators is the business of environmental destruction.

Middle Deschutes Flows

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Today I saw that one of the COID main canals near my house was full of water so I checked the graph.  As you can see below, there have been some pretty dramatic fluctuations in the Deschutes below Bend over the past week.  There was an abrupt diversion into the canals on February 10 and it looks like another is starting today.  (Note that it can take a few days for the water to make it down the canals.)  As I have written before, these sudden fluctuations wreak havoc on the aquatic environment and cause increased sedimentation which fills spawning beds.Read More »

Middle Deschutes Flows

On January 31 the Deschutes River Conservancy announced that they had secured funding from Intel Corporation to help with their middle Deschutes summer water leasing program. Without the DRC’s various efforts, including the leasing program, the middle Deschutes below Bend would be virtually dry in the summer.  Additional funding for the leasing program is welcome news but requires some context. 

Flows in the Deschutes above Bend are controlled by irrigation districts who withhold water to fill reservoirs in the winter and release water in the summer which is then diverted into a series of irrigation canals.  The last major diversion is located at the North Canal Dam in Bend just upriver from the Riverhouse.  During irrigation season the Deschutes below this dam is reduced to a relative trickle, dramatically damaging the ecosystem for fish and wildlife. 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 »

Irrigators Kill the Deschutes Again

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).

Capture

 

The middle Deschutes is hurting again…

Irrigation season has started and once again the middle Deschutes is suffering.  As you can see on the Bureau of Reclamation website, the Deschutes River below North Dam (just upstream from the Mt. Washington bridge) is now reduced to 62 cfs.  As I argued in this post, recent levels are least as damaging as what happens in the upper Deschutes below Wickiup Reservoir in the winter.  The flows should come back up a little later in the spring as the irrigators allow some additional flows but by that time the damage will have been done.  The exposed river bottom will kill fish eggs, the aquatic insects that fish eat, and the plants that the insects need.  In spite of all the time, effort, and money put into restoration the Deschutes continues to be no more than an irrigation ditch for the benefit of a few irrigators to the detriment of the rest of us.

Capture

UPDATE: a reader pointed out to me that my graph only covers the past 2 weeks. If you go to the BoR site (link above) and run the graph for a longer period you will see that the middle Deschutes was running around 800 cfs for most of the winter. 800 cfs to 62 cfs is a better illustration of just how environmentally damaging the beginning of irrigation season is.