In My View: It’s time to save the Upper Deschutes

In My View: It’s time to save the Upper Deschutes
By Doug La Placa
Bend Bulletin

March 19, 2016

2013 Upper Deschutes River fish kill. Photo by Doug La Placa.

2013 Upper Deschutes River fish kill. Photo by Doug La Placa.

When I was in the second grade a friend brought over a beat-up old fly rod. We tied on some fishing line and ran to the nearest pond. I hurled the line into the water and caught a crappie. From that day on I was hooked on fishing, and I’ve treasured our great outdoors ever since.

After 20 years in the tourism industry and extensive study of recreation-based economies, I know that Bend is a world-class outdoor destination. This fact makes our area a magnet for visitors, as well as businesses seeking an edge in the competition to recruit high-skill employees. Each one of us benefits from Central Oregon’s natural amenities — every resident, every business. Working together to preserve and restore our outdoor gems serves our common interest.

But the crown jewel of our local gems, the Upper Deschutes River, is in serious trouble. Once home to some of North America’s finest trout fishing, the Upper Deschutes is now treated with little more consideration than an irrigation ditch. The flows in the river between Wickiup Reservoir and Bend now bear no relation to natural river flows. These days, the Upper Deschutes is turned on and off like a faucet, harming our economy and our environment.

Each fall, residents, tourists, fishing guides and other business owners are forced to watch as water levels drop, stranding thousands of fish and a picture-perfect river reach turns into an ugly scene of needless waste. These fish kills have rightly made national headlines, and this bad news has been broadcast far and wide. But no one wants our region, our community and our river to be associated with regular fish kills and images of dried-up river beds.

I commend the annual volunteer bucket brigades that save fish each autumn, but this is not a long-term solution. We must do better for our backyard river. We all have a responsibility to do something about it — immediately — because the Deschutes River is vital to our economy and quality of life.

A restored Upper Deschutes fishery would provide a significant boost to the local economy. And studies have shown there is enough water available, if managed properly, to supply agriculture and keep the river healthy for the fish, wildlife and people depending on it.

The laws in place that allow our river to be turned off were created in 1909 — in an era ruled by thinking that is now grossly antiquated, including women not having the right to vote and race segregation being commonplace at public schools. Our thinking has greatly evolved since that time, providing significant benefits to our society and economy. So too must our thinking around the governance and management of our most crucial natural resources.

The bottom line is this: We know we don’t have to keep living with the dire condition of the Upper Deschutes River and the ongoing harm the current water management causes to our local economy. If we know we can do better, we should. And we should do it now.

I understand that local irrigation districts and others have been participating for several years in a planning process intended to improve conditions for fish and wildlife in the Upper Deschutes and elsewhere in the basin. Unfortunately, after more than eight years and $2.6 million in public funds spent, this process has failed to come up with a plan to fix what’s wrong in the Upper Deschutes. It is time to do better.

We cannot afford more years of delay. It is no longer acceptable to be quiet. Let’s take concrete steps now to restore more natural river flows, boost our local economy and ensure future generations have the same opportunities we had to enjoy healthy rivers. We will all benefit from a restored Upper Deschutes River.

— Doug La Placa is president and CEO of Visit Bend. This opinion is his own.