In My View: Water usage must change to help the Deschutes River

In My View: Water usage must change to help the Deschutes River
By Jeff Perin
Bend Bulletin

August 27, 2015

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

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

Fishing is my life. Most days you’ll find me at my fly-fishing shop in Sisters, but every chance I get I head out on the water, either guiding other anglers or casting a fly myself. I’ve fished all over the world, but in my mind there’s no better place to fish than the Deschutes Basin’s legendary waters. I consider it an incredible privilege to be able to make a living fishing in the same area where I grew up and fished with my grandparents.

My worry is that future generations won’t have the same opportunities as I’ve had to enjoy our local rivers and fish. While some of my favorite waterways have been protected and still run healthy, clean and full of fish, the main stem of the Deschutes River is in trouble. Key stretches of one of North America’s finest trout streams have been reduced to little more than irrigation ditches.

Prior to the irrigation dams — and thanks to the region’s unique geology and groundwater — flow levels in the Upper Deschutes typically ranged from roughly 314,000 to 539,000 gallons per minute and varied little year-round. These days, as a result of water storage and irrigation operations, the flows of the Upper Deschutes between Wickiup Reservoir and Bend bear no relation to natural river flows.

In the winter, the Upper Deschutes is reduced to a trickle — not enough to sustain the fish, plants and wildlife that all depend on a healthy river. Winter flows below Wickiup hover around 13,000 gallons per minute. This is well below the 135,000 gallons-per-minute instream water right adopted by the state of Oregon to protect fish in this stretch and far below the minimum 314,000 gallons per minute potentially needed to sustain threatened wildlife. In the summer, when water is released from storage, flows jump to around 628,000 gallons per minute, well above natural flows. These wildly changing flows strand fish and wildlife, damage habitat, and cause erosion and water pollution.

The October 2013 fish kill on the Deschutes above Bend that outraged so many people wasn’t an isolated incident. The Upper Deschutes River — and Central Oregon — deserves better than this. Everyone with a stake in the Deschutes — irrigation districts, anglers, paddlers, conservationists and others who enjoy the river — need to work together to stop more waste and destruction.

It’s clear that the way we treat the Deschutes harms more than just the trout; the river is vital to Central Oregon’s economy. According to a 2011 economic analysis, almost $130 million annually is directly attributable to the river from tourism, recreation, hotels, real estate sales and agriculture. When its contribution to Oregon’s commercial salmon harvest and travel to Central Oregon are added in, the total economic value to the state created by the river is more than $185 million.

With all of these users and their economic contributions, it makes little sense to manage the river solely for irrigation. We need to act now to increase winter flows in the Upper Deschutes and help restore the health of the river in the process. From both an economic and environmental standpoint, we simply can’t delay as the Upper Deschutes River continues to deteriorate.

A new approach in the Upper Deschutes is needed now. We must find a better balance between human uses and what the river needs before we lose this irreplaceable natural resource. It’s our responsibility to make sure that a healthy Deschutes River will be passed down as a legacy for future generations.

— Jeff Perin owns The Fly Fisher’s Place in Sisters and is on the board of WaterWatch of Oregon.