Last Chance for the Deschutes

The biggest decision-point in our lifetimes for the future of the Deschutes River Basin was triggered this fall when irrigation districts submitted a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The plan put forth by the irrigation districts does not sufficiently address the scale of the River’s problem. It is woefully inadequate relative to the health of the River and the welfare of its fish and wildlife.

Anyone who cares about the future of our beloved river should file comments during the public comment period that ends November 18th, 2019.

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

The Problem

Since the completion of Wickiup Dam in 1949, the Upper Deschutes has suffered significant ecological decline.  The once stable flow is now highly volatile, varying from low flows of 20 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the winter to flood-level flows as high as 1,800 cfs in the summer. The sole driver of this unnatural fluctuation is the demands of six irrigation districts which require that virtually all of the water from the headwaters of the Deschutes be stored in the winter to be released in large volume during the growing season. 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.  These highly volatile seasonal flows have decimated native fish populations.

Some irrigation water in our region is used efficiently and for real agricultural output.  Unfortunately, much of the water in large Deschutes County irrigation districts is wasted.  Despite climate change and threatened frogs and fish, there is no culture of conservation in these districts. Instead, irrigation district patrons are told to “use it or lose it,” use all of their water or risk losing it.  But, in reality, there is very little risk in losing a water right and many ways to both reduce water use and protect the rights.

Banner Photo Courtesy of Kim Elton