Our rivers are critically important to Central Oregon's economy and quality of life. From the aqua blue springs of the Metolius River to the essential Deschutes River and its tributaries, Central Oregon LandWatch has been working to protect and restore our rivers and springs for more than thirty years.

Saving the Deschutes River

Photo Courtesy of Philip Sidran

Photo Courtesy of Philip Sidran

Can you imagine Central Oregon without the Deschutes River? It is the life-blood of this watershed. People, farms, fish and wildlife – all depend on the river.

From water for drinking and for crops, to fish, birds, and wildlife habitat, to outdoor recreation and our economy, the river supports us. Our lives and livelihoods depend on a healthy river.

Once considered a model for river health, today the Deschutes is in trouble. Diversions, dams, and population growth have all taken a toll. While significant strides have been made to protect this important waterway, the pressures of development and continued wasteful practices impede progress.

Even though the Upper Deschutes is a Wild and Scenic River, it is managed as a conduit for irrigation water. In the summer months, almost all of the river's water is diverted for irrigation, leaving the Middle Deschutes too warm to support healthy fisheries. In the winter, the Upper Deschutes is reduced to a trickle, resulting in annual fish kills

A study commissioned by Central Oregon LandWatch 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.

Advocating for Endangered Species’ Water Needs in the Deschutes River

For many years, poor water management has led to declining populations of iconic fish and amphibians in the Deschutes River Basin. While productive farm land is vitally important to our region's economy and livability, needlessly inefficient water use harms the Oregon spotted frog, bull trout, steelhead, sockeye salmon, and spring Chinook salmon. Because of listing of species under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has begun a process that has the potential to significantly change how water in the Basin is managed in order to protect these species. 

LandWatch recently submitted comments to the USFWS's Deschutes River Basin Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) project scoping.  The USFWS initiated the HCP following a request by the eight irrigation districts of the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, along with the City of Prineville, to receive a permit to "take" endangered species as a result of their activities.  In Endangered Species Act jargon, "take" means to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect any threatened or endangered species.

The eight irrigation districts use a large amount of water in the Deschutes River Basin and are largely responsible for the low stream flows and degraded water quality that has led to "take" of the Oregon spotted frog, bull trout, steelhead, sockeye salmon, and spring Chinook salmon throughout the Deschutes River Basin.  The high levels of historic "take" of these species has resulted in the listing of the Oregon spotted frog, bull trout, and steelhead as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, and potential listing of sockeye salmon, and spring Chinook salmon. 

Not all irrigation districts use water the same way. A recent study indicates 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. The result is that farms with junior water rights have implemented practices to improve water use efficiency, resulting in higher crop yields and economic value. For example, farmers in the North Unit Irrigation District, near Madras, use water more wisely while still supporting a robust and thriving agricultural economy. The techniques they use to conserve water and protect fish can be applied to other irrigation districts in Central Oregon.

To this end, LandWatch's comments outline the key water management issues the HCP should address, and the key conservation measures that the USFWS should require the irrigation districts to comply with in order to enjoy the benefits of a permit allowing incidental "take" of species.  Determining and achieving minimum stream flows for the five species all year long is the most important goal the HCP must meet. The HCP should also require the irrigation districts and their patrons to conserve more water, and to leave that water in our rivers and streams.  The current and future effects of climate change and population growth on our region should also be accounted for.  Finally, the HCP should require the irrigation districts to implement a wide range of large and small solutions that will result in the survival of our aquatic life.

LandWatch will continue to participate in the USFWS's HCP development, and seek to ensure that the plan results in improved streamflows for wildlife, as well as promotes efficient irrigation and productive agriculture in Central Oregon.


Tumalo Creek provides a peaceful refuge, outdoor recreation opportunities and crystal-clear cold water to the Middle Deschutes River. Although Tumalo Falls are known as one of Central Oregon’s iconic gems, they are at risk. The City of Bend diverts water from the creek, changing its natural flow, affecting fish habitat, and threatening Tumalo Falls’ thundering roar. 

LandWatch was successful in stopping an even larger planned diversion from the Creek by the City, but Tumalo Falls are still at risk. Our current efforts are to encourage the Forest Service to create a plan to protect the falls by stopping diversions when flows drop below what scientists say are minimum instream flow needs of the Creek, and to take climate change into account when it issues permits for water withdrawals. 

Tumalo Creek is a jewel and should be protected. It is one of my favorite places to fish and go birdwatching.
— Michael Shannon, Bend Resident

Banner Photo Courtesy of Kim Elton