(Update: C.O. Irrigation District manager responds)
The proposed Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan falls far short of what’s needed to address issues on the river, focusing on costly piping, often for small ” hobby farms, ” while ignoring market-based incentives that can reduce wasteful water use, Central Oregon LandWatch claimed Thursday.
The most critical decision-point for the future of the Deschutes River Basin was triggered recently, when irrigation districts submitted a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. However, the plan put forth by the irrigation districts does not sufficiently address the scale of the river’s problems, the group said.
The HCP is a plan developed by the irrigation districts in Central Oregon to minimize and mitigate the effects of their operations on mid-Columbia steelhead, Chinook salmon, Sockeye salmon, bull trout and the Oregon spotted frog.
If the HCP is approved by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, the irrigation districts will receive incidental take permits. The LandWatch group noted the permits will protect them from potential liabilities associated the species listed under the Endangered Species Act, allowing them to “take” the species incidentally in the lawful operation of their businesses.
The critical comments came from Tod Heisler , who spent the past 15 years as the executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy and participated in three collaborative studies analyzing conservation strategies to meet both the needs of the river and the irrigators.
But Heisler , now rivers program director for Central Oregon LandWatch, warned that ” the HCP put forth by the irrigation districts is woefully inadequate, relative to the health of the river and the welfare of its fish and wildlife. It does not use the integrated solutions analyzed by the Deschutes Basin Study, solutions that could resolve water disparities better and more quickly than implied by the HCP. ”
Since the completion of Wickiup Dam in 1949, the Upper Deschutes has suffered significant ecological decline, LandWatch noted. The once stable flow is now highly volatile, varying from low flows of 20 cubic feet per second ( cfs ) in the winter to flood-level flows as high as 1,800 cfs in the summer.
The sole driver of this unnatural fluctuation, it said, is the demands of six irrigation districts which require that virtually all of the water from the headwaters of the Deschutes be stored in the winter, to be released in large volume during the growing season.
The low flows dry the banks and weaken the riparian vegetation; the subsequent high flows uproot and wash away the vegetation critical to anchoring the fine volcanic soils of the streambanks , resulting in severe erosion and a river channel that is 20% larger than it was in its natural state.
“These highly volatile seasonal flows have decimated native fish populations,” LandWatch stated.
Only a portion of the irrigation water in our region is used efficiently and for real agricultural output, according to LandWatch. Unfortunately, it said, much of the water in Deschutes County irrigation districts is wasted.
“Despite climate change and threatened frogs and fish, there is no culture of conservation in these districts,” LandWatch claimed. “Instead, irrigation district patrons are told to ‘use it or lose it’ — use all of their water or risk losing it.
“But, in reality, there is very little risk in losing a water right and many ways to both reduce water use and protect the rights,” the group claimed.
The proposed habitat plan includes major canal-piping proposals, to cut major waste from leaks and return newly conserved water to the river. Heisler told NewsChannel 21, “We are not opposed to the modernization of the districts and canal piping.”
“The problem is that the price tag in COID (the Central Oregon Irrigation District) alone is around $1 billion. This is a huge public subsidy to provide water to 1-, 2-, 5-, 1-acre hobby farms (at least half of COID looks like this),” he said.
“This is not actually supporting Central Oregon’s agricultural economy — Deschutes County has negative net annual farm income – which is in Jefferson County,” Heisler wrote in an email.
“The ‘big pipe agenda’ does not ask any of these small irrigators to become more efficient, and because they have senior rights, the are notoriously inefficient,” Heisler claimed.
“The way to redistribute water efficiently and economically in Central Oregon is to use market-based incentives,” he said. “These have been studied for years (studies in 2006, 2012, and 2019) but barely implemented and not included at all in the Habitat Conservation Plan.”
“There are very promising alternatives that are being ignored,” Heisler said, “and the river and North Unit (Irrigation District) farmers will suffer as a result.”
Heisler added, “Anyone who cares about the future of our beloved river should file comments during the public comment period that ends November 18th .” Find out more at www.centraloregonlandwatch.org/deschutes.
Craig Horrell, general manager of COID, said he respects Heisler after years of both being in meetings on the issues, but he also disputed some of his claims.
“The reality is, yes, big piping is part of our agenda, because that is where the (grant) money is today,” he said. “But piping is going to promote all of the on-farm changes, and collaboration with our patrons to do better” in terms of reducing waste and using water more wisely.
“Change is coming — it’s just a slow change,” Horrell said. “I think we all agree the changes need to be done. It’s just how fast.”
“LandWatch for some reason is attacking the HCP, which I think is great. It’s putting water in the river like never before,” he said. “I think we can all agree that we’re working toward the betterment of a community.”
Horrell said COID will be doing pilot projects involving market-based incentives, “moving water around for patrons” to promote efficient use. But he added that in his view, “The amount of water (from such efforts) is not enough to fix the river.”
“We are doing market-based solutions,” he said, even though it will take challenging water law to see if those pilot projects can be done.
Overall, Horrell said, solving the Deschutes River’s issues is “going to be a little bit of both. It’s going to be big piping. It’s going to be market-based solutions. It’s just a big, big nut to crack.”