New Study: Unequal Water Allocations on Upper Deschutes Waste Water, Promote Inefficiency

Present system encourages wasteful practices for some, drives conservation measures for others

Bend, OR – A new study finds that when it comes to allocating water from the Upper Deschutes River for irrigation purposes, less is more.  Findings indicate that the current system encourages inefficient use of water by senior water rights holders and very efficient use of water by junior water rights holders, resulting in higher crop yields and economic value on farms that have implemented practices to improve water use efficiency.

The study, “Agriculture and Irrigation in Oregon’s Deschutes and Jefferson Counties,” was conducted by Headwaters Economics and commissioned by Central Oregon LandWatch to increase awareness of the importance of irrigated agriculture and of conservation practices that improve crop yield while saving water.

Photo: U.S. Forest service

Photo: U.S. Forest service

 “Protection of agriculture is an important objective of our work,” said Paul Dewey, executive director of Central Oregon LandWatch. “So is restoration of more natural flows in the Upper Deschutes to maintain a healthy river system. This study shows we can achieve both.”

The study’s findings show that scarcity of water necessitates conservation and improved water use efficiency by junior water rights holders in Jefferson County - practices that, if applied basin-wide, could improve how water is used within the region and benefit the overall health of the Upper Deschutes River.

Of particular significance is the finding that on-farm efficiency practices can greatly reduce amounts of water that need to be diverted from the Upper Deschutes River for irrigation. Water conservation strategies, such as drip irrigation systems, achieve an average of 94% water efficiency in Jefferson County as compared to the lack of such strategies in Deschutes County where the average has been as low as 43%. These water efficiency percentages reflect the amount of water used that was actually needed for the crops, so a smaller percentage reflects more water use than actually needed.

The Upper Deschutes was historically one of the most stable river systems in the country. The development and operation of irrigation district systems have substantially altered the flows of the Upper Deschutes River over the past 100 years, with extremely low flows in the winter and very high flows in the summer. Impacts of these uneven flows include diminished water quality, fish kills and severe erosion of stream banks.

“The Deschutes River is one of the great rivers of the American West and the Upper Deschutes River is currently in bad shape,” said Dewey.  “We are now at a point where long-term solutions to the problems must be addressed. These findings point to conservation and efficiency as the answer to restoring the Upper Deschutes to health and providing clean and abundant water for future generations.”

Click here to download the Headwaters Economics study

Click here to download Central Oregon LandWatch's position paper, which summarizes the study and gives LandWatch's recommendations going forward.

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