Guest Commentary: Just Add Water

Guest Commentary: Just Add Water
Bend Source

March 16, 2016

Few people alive remember what the Upper Deschutes River was like before Wickiup Dam was built in 1949. It was then regarded as one of the finest fisheries in the US. In 1914 Clyde McKay received the Field and Stream award for the second largest stream-caught rainbow on a fly in the US. The City of Bend used to have fish fries on the Fourth of July. A few anglers would go out and provide over 3,000 fish caught with rod and reel over a four-day period. There was once a 125-fish daily bag limit on the Deschutes.

The river flowed cold and clear. Seasonal fluctuations were minimal due to the porous geology and spring-fed nature of the upper basin. Spawning gravels for trout were abundant, there was a diversity of aquatic insects essential for food, deep pools for cover and large woody debris gave shelter.

The stream-sides were stable, with life-sustaining wetlands hosting a multitude of critters, including spotted frogs. Imagine a prolific stream like that flowing through our community today.

Wickiup Dam changed all of that. Wickiup Dam and its reservoir plugged the natural flow of the Deschutes River. The 200,000 acre-feet that it stores over the winter are now flushed down the river in the summer, like a toilet.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission realized the harm damming the river would have by reducing winter flows and requested no less than 200 cfs (cubic feet per second) minimum winter flows. The figure was felt to be the smallest flow that the river could tolerate in the winter to keep the river healthy. The State Engineer denied the request in the early 1950s, and ruled that only 20 cfs would be sufficient. The historic flows of 700-900 cfs were reduced to next to nothing.

Today the fishery is all but gone. The spawning gravels are silted in like Mirror Pond. The river is highly manipulated. Flows are reduced to a trickle in the wintertime and run at flood stage in the summer, eroding the banks. It is managed as an irrigation ditch with no concern for other public values.

The sad list of abuses goes on. There are dozens of studies on the upper river from a variety of sources. Two local organizations have attempted to solve the problem for decades by consensus building and working with the irrigation districts. They have had some success in the river below Bend. However their work has not improved flows at all above town.

The problem is not for lack of water. Studies have shown there is enough for both the farmlands and instream flows. The problem is the rampant waste by the districts. Often, only one-third of the water diverted gets to the crops. Two-thirds of the water diverted is absurdly wasted in systems that were developed before there was any concept of conservation. Flood irrigation is still being used in many locations. Sixty percent of Central Oregon Irrigation District’s (COID) patrons still use old methods that are only 30-45 percent efficient. There is not a demand system available for farmers to request only the amount of water they need. How can that amount of waste be considered a beneficial use?

There is even more trouble on the horizon. Our local irrigation districts are becoming mini energy companies. Most of COI’s revenues now come from generating electricity, not from farmers. They have plans for several additional hydro projects. It will become nigh impossible to get water back instream if they profit from the hydro potential in the canals.

After decades of failed “collaborative” efforts to restore flows in the Upper Deschutes, it’s no wonder that lawsuits have been filed. If we want to have a healthy river that supports fish and wildlife and serves everyone, not just irrigation districts, it’s time to act now before it’s too late.

There are very few options left other than filing lawsuits.

-Craig Lacy is past Chairman of Coalition for the Deschutes