A legal victory for the Deschutes

A legal victory for the Deschutes

Bend Bulletin
February 17, 2008


This week, a federal judge blessed the Swalley Irrigation District’s plan to pipe a section of leaky canal. The ruling caps more than two years of legal wrangling and comes, no doubt, as a relief to most Swalley members. But in a larger sense, it’s a victory for all Central Oregonians, including those with gills and scales.

The Deschutes River contributes almost all of its summer flow to a handful of irrigation diversions, including Swalley’s. For many years, only an informal agreement among irrigators prevented the river from disappearing completely during its trip through Bend. But even with this donated water, summer flows were often as low as 30 cubic feet per second (about 220 gallons). During the winter, the stretch of river below Bend typically carries several hundred cubic feet per second. Reduced to a trickle, a river is a far less attractive thing. Worse, it warms quickly during the summer, creating lousy habitat for redband trout and other fish.

Fortunately, there are ways to help fish without trampling irrigators’ water rights. Piping is one such solution. Sending irrigation water through pipes keeps it from leaking into the ground, which in turn allows irrigators to divert less from the Deschutes. The saved water can be left in-stream for the enjoyment of fish, fishermen and casual observers. And in some cases, the pipes create enough pressure to generate electricity. Everybody wins, right?

Not exactly. People who live along canals like the way these man-made, seasonal rivers look, and some have sought to preserve them. This desire is understandable, if not entirely reasonable. Canals exist solely to move water, and if installing pipes can get the job done in a manner that helps the irrigation company and the environment, it ought to be done. And, as Judge Ann Aiken ruled Tuesday, irrigators have a right to do it.

The decision will assist a beneficial trend that has changed the Deschutes dramatically since the not-too-distant 30-cfs days. Through projects that have been completed during the past eight years or so, the Deschutes River Conservancy has helped return about 40 cfs of conserved water to the Deschutes in the summer, says program director Scott McCaulou. Together, the donated 30 cfs, the conserved 40 cfs and supplemental leased water pushed the river’s flow above 100 cfs last summer.

And, thanks to projects like Swalley’s, the numbers will keep climbing.

Swalley’s 5-mile pipe will contribute an additional 20 cfs, says McCaulou. Meanwhile, the Central Oregon Irrigation District plans to start piping a major canal that runs through the city’s Juniper Ridge property. The first phase will save about the same volume as Swalley’s project. The first phase of a Tumalo Irrigation District project, meanwhile, would return a total of 20 cfs to the Deschutes and to Tumalo Creek, which contains valuable cold water. Taken together, says McCaulou, these projects will further augment flows in the Deschutes by 60 to 65 cfs within three to four years.

The neediest stretch of the Deschutes River is in the midst of a remarkable transformation. Because the change is taking place bit by bit, project by project, many people probably haven’t noticed it. But it is happening, and the result will benefit not only fish, but everyone — including tourists — who values the river as an aesthetic and recreational amenity.

And what of the people who oppose piping projects like Swalley’s? Even for them, the outcome won’t be completely bad. They may lose a backyard stream to which they have no right. But they, too, stand to gain a healthier river.