Water fight brewing
Diverting water from the Deschutes into Tumalo Reservoir would help meet future demand and make it ‘hugely cheaper’ to pump groundwater, say the plan’s backers. Opponents argue the proposal flies in the face of existing regulations.
Challenging the widely held view that all the water in the Deschutes River is spoken for and then some, a group of local water users, led by former state Sen. Neil Bryant, wants to skim off winter flows just south of Bend’s Pioneer Park and pump them underground.
The city of Redmond, the Deschutes Valley Water District and Avion Water Co. have applied for a five-year license to test the plan, which would divert as much as one-sixth of the river’s flow at certain times between November and February. The water would be pumped into the famously leaky Tumalo Reservoir, to seep down into the aquifer.
If deemed successful, the test would be used to justify increased groundwater pumping elsewhere in the region.
“What it does is it ensures that we can keep doing business, and if the population base keeps growing, we can serve that base, too,” said Ed Pugh, general manager of the Deschutes Valley Water District.
However, others say the river is already over-appropriated and that the plan upends the system of water usage in Central Oregon.
The group WaterWatch has challenged the new application, saying it would violate a number of laws and regulations intended to protect groundwater and the river.
“Allowing this use would be a departure from the state’s allocation policy,” said WaterWatch’s Kimberley Priestley. “And it’s a lot of water.”
Steve Johnson, manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District, said, “I think this is a step way out of the comfort zone with how the basin has been managing mitigation. … I would be surprised if it were approved; I really would.”
Tod Heisler, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, called the plan an “unusual proposal” and “more of an outlying idea … I would share Steve’s general concerns that this ought to be looked at pretty carefully.”
According to Avion’s general manager, Jan Wick, the plan would let applicants lower the cost of pumping water under the state’s Deschutes Groundwater Mitigation Program, set up in response to a ban on new groundwater permits between 1998 and 2002.
Under the program, farmers who own the rights to water in the Deschutes River or its tributaries either sell or lease those rights, leaving water in the river so the same volume of groundwater can be pumped from wells year-round.
Those so-called mitigation credits cost about $2,500 per acre-foot of water, or about 325,000 gallons.
Wick said the plan could be “hugely cheaper,” reducing the cost of water for Avion and the other applicants to about $200 per acre-foot.
The plan is expected to generate an average of 10,000 acre-feet per year, translating to $20 million in potential annual savings for the applicants.
Pat Dorning, a water official for the city of Redmond, said the city already has enough water rights to last more than a decade. But “we’re not doing this to make a profit; we’re doing this to meet future demands,” he said.
Bryant, the Bend lawyer who has been representing the applicants in meetings with the Oregon Water Resources Department, agreed, saying that while mitigation credits resulting from the plan could be sold to other water users in the future, the primary goal is to meet demand.
He expressed confidence that no laws or regulations would need to be changed if the department “interprets its existing rules in a reasonable way.”
In 2006, after a protest was filed by Bend resident Jeff Boyer and others, the Water Resources Department issued a proposed denial of an earlier version of the plan, saying water was not available and that the plan violated a half-dozen different regulations. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife also opposed the plan, expressing concern about its effect on steelhead, bull trout and other endangered species.
Dave Newton, the consultant who has been spearheading the plan with Bryant, expressed confidence that through discussions with ODFW, the new plan has been refined in a way that protects the environment.
For instance, to ensure the Deschutes has enough water for other water rights, the group would take no more than 140 cubic feet per second — or cfs — and preserve minimum flows in the river of 760 cfs. Newton said the intent would be to eventually take as much as 200 cfs.
Also, the group would turn off its pumps when peak flows of 1,250 cfs are hit and shut them down on March 1 until the next winter. That’s because biologists say periodic flushing by peak flows preserves gravel habitat for fish spawning.
“We’re going to take any water only after all the other flow rights are met,” Newton said. “And the amount we would divert is just going to depend on what the river flow is.”
‘Something we want to see’
Though the city of Bend is not involved in the application, it does support the effort, said Patrick Griffiths, the city’s water resources coordinator.
“It’s another tool in the toolbox,” he said. “I think aquifer recharge is definitely something we want to see in the basin, if it can work.”
The proposed Deschutes recharge plan would not be the first of its kind. An aquifer recharge program under way in the Umatilla area, using Columbia River water, has been well received.
WaterWatch’s Priestley, however, said the comparison doesn’t fly. “The Umatilla (program) has a lot more thought going into it,” she said. “It has well-defined needs, and there are a lot of studies that went into it.”
Avion’s Wick, for his part, said a great deal of effort has been put into making the Deschutes plan environmentally sound.
“I think we have been able to show that, at least on paper, what we wish to do would not be harmful,” he said.
COID’s Johnson is concerned that the plan comes at a delicate time. The Deschutes mitigation program expires in 2014, meaning the Legislature will in the next few years start deciding whether to renew it and under what conditions.
The district manager worries the plan could undermine “the survivability of the mitigation program,” due to the perception created by generating new water when no water rights are currently available.
Not only that, the plan comes at a time when steelhead are being reintroduced into Lake Billy Chinook, and also while Bend and other local governments and irrigation districts are working on a habitat conservation plan to protect endangered species, Johnson said.
“I’m finding this pretty curious,” he said. “Politically and legally right now, why do you want to do this?”
Rick Kepler, a water quality manager for the Fish and Wildlife Department, said his department has signed off on the test license to pump water into the aquifer.
But that does not mean it will approve taking the water back out under a permanent water right if the recharge test is successful, he added.
One question is how long recharged water would stay in the aquifer before it went elsewhere, he said; also, “Is the water you’re putting in the aquifer going to offset the water you’re taking out if it’s in the wrong place? … There are a lot of questions.”