The Bulletin Editorial Board: Irrigation Districts Should Share Water

WaterWatch has been working for decades to restore the Deschutes River to its natural, healthy state. Local efforts have improved water management across the basin, but the river's long-term health remains fragile. The Bulletin's Editorial Board asked why more hasn't been done to restore the river on which we all rely. Read their article below.

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Editorial: WaterWatch has a valid point about the Deschutes

Published Jan 31, 2016 in The Bulletin

Dead and dying fish after Deschutes River drawdown from Wickiup Reservoir

Dead and dying fish after Deschutes River drawdown from Wickiup Reservoir

In the matter of the lawsuit filed by WaterWatch of Oregon over the Oregon spotted frog, WaterWatch has a point.

We don’t agree with the lawsuit or think a lawsuit is a good strategy for improving the river.

But just look at two things — flows and progress in what’s called the Upper Deschutes. That’s the stretch of river below Wickiup Reservoir and above Bend.

Flows in the Upper Deschutes become a relative trickle in the winter. They get as low as 20 cubic feet per second. People may disagree about what exactly would be a “healthy” flow. Nobody looks at 20 cfs and cheers. Ten times that would be a start.

Then there’s progress in improving those flows. Over the last 10 years, do you know what has been permanently conserved in that stretch of river? It was 0.76 cfs. It’s not enough.

So why hasn’t more been done? If you talk to people who work in this field, it’s not like they argue that there is no need to do better. So why don’t they do better?

Some say it’s money. Some want big projects that come with big price tags. One might be to pipe all of Central Oregon Irrigation District’s main canals. That could win as much as 400 cfs and could be translated indirectly to increase flows in the Upper Deschutes. But it might cost $300 million to $500 million.

Do you think Congress is going to send Central Oregon that kind of check anytime soon? Instead, the money is going to trickle in.

Beyond money, though, there are other problems. The tools that state law provides don’t work very well to help the flows in the Upper Deschutes.

The tools are things like instream leasing and water transfers. Those shift water from agricultural use back into the river. Individual irrigation districts can use them and have used them. But with the exception of North Unit Irrigation District in Madras, the actions of most of the other districts do not have the direct ability to restore flows in the Upper Deschutes in the winter.

North Unit Irrigation District is the most dependent on reservoirs. It also already does a good job of squeezing every drop for efficiency. Farmers there use more drip irrigation. The irrigation district has a system for farmers to take only the water they need on a given day.

So one key is to help North Unit reduce its dependence on reservoirs. The districts would have to work together to share what they have to help North Unit. Could that happen now? Here, we’re getting in to a tricky area, because of the lawsuit filed by WaterWatch. Irrigation districts or the Bureau of Reclamation can’t really go around admitting in the middle of a lawsuit that there is more they could do to help the river and the frog. That would be lapped up by the lawyers for WaterWatch.

But we keep coming back to an analysis done by the Bureau of Reclamation. It said basically that 100 cfs more could be let out of Wickiup every year.

There would be a risk. In drier years or in a series of dry years, that could hurt North Unit. Other irrigation districts would have to implement plans to help cover for North Unit.

Why hasn’t it been tried? Why hasn’t there been more cooperation? WaterWatch has a point.