Last Chance for the Deschutes


The Deschutes River is a national treasure. Designated as both a National Wild and Scenic River and a State Scenic Waterway, the Deschutes River is the largest spring-fed river in the United States. The Deschutes has also long been known as the “Peculiar River” for its remarkably even year-round streamflow, more than any other river in the US. Historically, the River supported one of the most productive cold-water fisheries in the country.  The Deschutes tributaries like the Crooked River, Tumalo Creek and Whychus Creek also support important fisheries.

 The Upper Deschutes has suffered significant ecological decline over the past century.  The once stable flow is now highly volatile.  It varies from low flows of 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the winter when water is being stored in Wickiup Reservoir to flood-level flows as high as 1,800 cfs in the summer when the stored water is released and transported to Bend where it is diverted for irrigation.  The river is treated like an irrigation ditch. The low flows dry the banks and weaken the riparian vegetation; the subsequent high flows uproot and wash away the vegetation critical to anchoring the fine volcanic soils of the streambanks, resulting in severe erosion and a river channel that is 20% larger than it was in its natural state.

The Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) is an enforceable agreement between irrigation districts and federal agencies meant to reduce the harmful effects of irrigation, but the plan currently put forth is woefully inadequate to address the health of the River, and the welfare of its fish and wildlife. The problem is that the streamflow levels are set too low and the process will be phased in over too long of a period, such as 30 years.  

 Not all irrigation districts are the same.  Of the two largest irrigation districts, the North Unit Irrigation District (NUID) in the Madras area is comprised primarily of family farmers who engage in a thriving and sophisticated farm economy (including, for example, selling carrot seed to Japan and Holland) and who use water efficiently (including, for examples, sprinkler and drip irrigation).  NUID is a junior water rights holder, though, so it is the last to get water under current water law.

In contrast, the Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID) is a senior water rights holder and is managed in a way that flagrantly wastes water.  For many of the COID water users, the water is merely a real estate amenity or, at best, used for a hobby farm.  Wasteful flood irrigation is practiced in many places.  The COID advocates use over conservation.  That is not to say that all COID patrons want to waste water.  Actually, a growing number of them have made it clear that they would like to lease their water to the River and NUID farmers, but COID is currently preventing that. 

 This is most likely the best opportunity you will have in your lifetime to influence the health and future of the Deschutes River and its tributaries.  Your public comment during this process is the best chance in many decades to set new streamflow goals for the River to save the species that depend on it.


 ·     Irrigators want the public to be distracted by the false depiction of the issue as “frogs versus farmers,” when the real choice is a healthy river system and efficient irrigators versus WASTE.  There is currently enough water in the system to take care of the needs of the species and of efficient irrigators if COID would stop wasting and allow sharing.

·     The irrigation district plans are flawed in relying so much on expensive big piping to reduce water use when far cheaper approaches are available such as piping private ditches, eliminating flood irrigation, and offering incentives to use less water. 

·     COID should allow market forces to encourage conservation and sharing of water with NUID family farms.  In turn, NUID will be able to release some of its stored water in Wickiup Reservoir for the benefit of the Oregon Spotted Frog and other fish and wildlife.

·     The family farmers of NUID should be prioritized to receive irrigation over COID patrons who do not utilize the water in a productive fashion. 

·     COID should allow and encourage its patrons to lease their water instream to the benefit of the River, where such leasing preserves the water rights of the patrons. 

·     The approach of the HCP is misplaced in failing to create strong incentives for conservation of on-farm water.  

·     COID’s plans for installing big pipes in its system will conserve water, but the primary objective is to make money with hydroelectric projects.  The hydro projects create a disincentive for on-farm water conservation because the more water saved means less hydro revenues. Hydro projects only make sense in districts where on-farm efficiencies and other conservation measures have already been adopted.

·     The proposed HCP stream flows in the Deschutes and its tributaries are not adequate for the protected species.  The Plan will allow the Districts to do nothing to improve Upper Deschutes winter flows for five more years, do essentially what they can already do now for years 6 through 10 and reach a target winter flow of 400 cfs by year 30 (that’s 2049), after many of us are dead and gone.  Recent federal science indicates that at least 600 cfs is needed in the winter.  Likewise, for the tributaries, greater flows are necessary for the steelhead, bull trout and other species.

·     The proposed HCP is flawed where it merely states what river flows will be provided over the years without showing “how” that will actually occur.  The “how” is important to ensure that a disproportionate burden is not placed on NUID and that the “solution” has some possibility of success.  

·     The proposed HCP would excuse the irrigation districts from having to do any adjustments to their use of river water, beyond those in their plan, for the benefit of threatened species for 30 years, even if climate change impacts during that time period further imperil the survival of the species.

·     With climate change there will be major impacts to the river system, and the species and farmers that rely on it.  It is important to come up with a fair and efficient system for use of water in the Deschutes River Basin NOW.  

·     The health of our river system reflects our own health and that of our community.  We cannot expect the area to thrive if our river system and the species that depend on it are unraveling.  

How to file comments

  • The easiest way to submit comments is through the form provided below. We encourage you to modify the text to reflect your own perspective.

  • Visit the Public Notice website for instructions on how to comment at public meetings or via hard copy.

It is time to speak out against water waste, to encourage water conservation, and to use the HCP federal permitting process to set appropriate streamflow goals for our rivers.
— Tod Heisler, Rivers Program Director