Deschutes River Conservation Plan Fails to Restore River, Fish, Frogs

For Immediate Release, November 5, 2020

Contact: Tod Heisler, Central Oregon Land Watch, (510) 480-2388,
Noah Greenwald, Center for Biological Diversity, (503) 484-7495,
Kimberley Priestley, WaterWatch of Oregon,

Deschutes River Conservation Plan Fails to Restore River, Fish, Frogs

Federal Plan Preserves Unsustainable Flows, Water Waste for Decades

BEND, Ore.— A final habitat conservation plan and environmental impact statement announced today by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the Upper Deschutes River, Whychus Creek and Crooked River largely preserves existing management of the river in the near term and fails to adequately help threatened bull trout, steelhead and Oregon spotted frogs.

Current management of the Upper Deschutes has turned flows in the river upside down, with low flows in the winter and high flows in the summer. This practice harms fish, frogs and the health of the river.

“The Deschutes River is a national treasure and deserves better,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “By preserving existing flows for the next seven years, this plan leaves the Oregon spotted frog, fish and the river itself high and dry.”

Once known for its remarkably even year-round streamflow, the Deschutes is now treated like an irrigation ditch with low flows of 100 cubic feet per second in the winter, when water is being stored in the Wickiup Reservoir. In the summer, when the stored water is released and transported to Bend — where it’s diverted for irrigation — flows climb to levels as high as 1,800 cfs.

These low flows dry the banks and weaken the riparian vegetation, while the subsequent high flows uproot and wash away the vegetation critical to anchoring the fine volcanic soils of the streambanks. This harms Oregon spotted frogs, which are nearly gone from the river, and the river’s world-class fishery.

“Irrigators with senior water rights have been wasting water for decades,” said Tod Heisler, rivers program director at Central Oregon LandWatch. “We can no longer afford wasteful irrigation practices on urban lots and hobby farms. Eliminating them is the key to providing more water for fish, frogs and real farmers.”

The habitat conservation plan released today by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, eight irrigation districts and the city of Prineville will not require any changes to water flow in the Upper Deschutes for the next seven years. After that winter flows will increase to 300 cfs in year 8, and 400 to 500 cfs by year 13. In 2017 the Service concluded that a minimum of 600 cfs in winter was needed to save the Oregon spotted frog, providing clear indication this very slow plan won’t be enough.

It’s also unclear how the districts will reach the flow targets. The habitat conservation plan only vaguely refers to piping of irrigation canals, meaning even these very modest flow targets may not be met.

Today’s plan does not address the significant waste of water, particularly in the Central Oregon Irrigation District, which because of its senior water rights has little incentive to work to conserve more water for the river. Instead the plan appears to rely primarily on piping the major canals diverting water from the river. This will save some water but is extremely expensive and time consuming, such that it is unclear whether there will ever be sufficient funds. Addressing some of the most inefficient use of water, such as flood irrigation, would be much cheaper and could be accomplished more quickly.

On Whychus Creek, despite years of publicly financed conservation projects in Three Sisters Irrigation District, the plan does not provide adequate stream flows for spawning and migrating steelhead.

The HCP also fails the Crooked, with no commitment to year-round minimum flows needed to meet the biological needs of steelhead.

“The HCP fails the Crooked River and its fish. The same irrigation districts that have prevented the establishment of streamflow protections on the Crooked now want immunity under the law for the harm they cause imperiled steelhead” said John DeVoe, WaterWatch of Oregon’s executive director. “These districts need to do more.”

Conservation groups are reviewing today’s plan and considering options for challenge.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.