Protecting the Deschutes River Basin
The Deschutes River is widely considered to be one of the finest trout streams in North America, and with good reason. The Deschutes is a stronghold for wild redside trout. The lower river contains significant runs of salmon and steelhead. Tributaries like the Metolius River contain some of the last, best refuges for threatened bull trout in Oregon.
The Deschutes River and its tributaries are central to the economy and quality of life in Central Oregon and the state as a whole. However, irrigation withdrawals and dams have taken a heavy toll on river flows in the Deschutes for years.
Today the river and its tributaries face enormous pressure from Central Oregon’s increasing demand for water. Because surface water was fully allocated decades ago, developers have turned to pumping groundwater. But in the Deschutes, new groundwater development directly reduces surface flows, including flows protected by the Instream Water Rights Act and Oregon’s State Scenic Waterways law.
WaterWatch has been involved in many historic accomplishments in the Deschutes Basin over the past three decades. Our willingness to watchdog all water right allocation and re-allocation decisions – and the enforcement of existing law – is improving water management across the basin. Our long-term goals in the Deschutes are to:
- Restore streamflows to the Deschutes and its tributaries to support a healthy ecosystem;
- Preserve the outstanding biological, scenic and recreational values of the river system;
- Ensure that the salmon and steelhead being reintroduced above the Pelton Round Butte Dam have the streamflows they need to thrive; and
- Protect streamflows from the impacts of growth and groundwater development
Instream Flow Restoration
WaterWatch’s most recent success in helping negotiate and secure passage of the Crooked River Collaborative Water Security and Jobs Act of 2014 is a game changer for the historically-parched Crooked River – and the region. This legislation provides the tools to restore streamflows in 72 miles of the Crooked between Bowman Dam and Lake Billy Chinook.
In addition, passage of the Instream Water Rights Act and the Conserved Water Act has led to 93 instream water rights basin-wide and significant instream flow restoration projects. WaterWatch also compelled Oregon to establish the Deschutes Groundwater Mitigation Program under the state Scenic Waterway Act. With the efforts of the Deschutes River Conservancy and others, these programs have already restored over 64.6 million gallons per day to the Middle Deschutes.
However, maintaining healthy streamflows in the basin remains a significant issue. For example, the Upper Deschutes – a potential blue ribbon fishery – is dewatered every fall and winter. Recent fish kills here and in other parts of the basin underscore the need to create solutions sooner rather than later.
Salmon and Steelhead Restoration
In 2004, WaterWatch helped negotiate key provisions of an agreement to finally reintroduce salmon and steelhead above the massive Pelton Round Butte Hydroelectric Project at the confluence of the Deschutes, Crooked, and Metolius rivers. Upper basin fish reintroduction has since become a powerful catalyst for restoration. And while still in the early stages, native steelhead and sockeye have begun to return to their home waters above this project.
WaterWatch and our allies are currently working to raise funds to install fish passage at the Opal Springs Hydroelectric Project on the Crooked River, which prevents salmon and steelhead from swimming upstream. Installing a ladder at this structure would provide fish access to more than 100 miles of spawning and rearing habitat, and the Oregon Department of Fish an Wildlife has ranked Opal Springs as the second highest priority fish passage project in the state. Please visit opalspringspassage.org to learn more about this issue and help bring salmon and steelhead back to the Crooked River.
Value of Natural Resources – Deschutes River Cooridor and Its Water, April 19, 2011
A study performed by a team of U. Michigan graduate students estimating that the Deschutes River generates $185.2 million in total economic value to six industries annually.