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30-year Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan draws quick fire

Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan
Deschutes Basin Board of Control

Irrigation districts say it will help threatened fish, frogs - critics say not enough or soon enough

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – After nearly 12 years of discussions and negotiations, the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan was announced Friday, with its backers saying it will do a great deal to balance streamflows and better protect four threatened species for the next 30 years – and critics saying it does nothing of the sort and vowing to challenge it.

According to the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, which includes eight Central Oregon irrigation districts, the plan being announced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service “includes adaptive management to provide long-term certainty for irrigators, fish and frogs alike,” addressing the effects of those districts and the city of Prineville on more than 480 miles of rivers and creeks in the region.

They said it protects the habitat of steelhead trout, bull trout, sockeye salmon and the Oregon spotted frog over the next three decades, including year-round habitat for the frogs in the upper Deschutes River, Crane Prairie Reservoir, Crescent Creek and the Little Deschutes River.

Over 30 years, they said, the plan will improve winter flows from 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 400-500 cfs, while reducing summer flows from 1,800 cfs to 1,200 cfs. It will maintain winter flows of at least 50 cfs in the Crooked River downstream of Bowman Dam wile increasing summer flows and providing habitat restoration funds for Whychus, Ochoco and McKay creeks.

The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service would issue "incidental take permits" to the irrigation districts and city, if their evaluation finds the applicants meet the Endangered Species Act requirements.

Under terms of the preferred alternative and proposed action, over the next 30 years, "in-stream flows would be modified to mimic more natural flow patterns to support the various life stages of the covered species," the notice being filed Friday in the Federal Register states.

One of the elements opposed by environmental groups -- a phased approach, over three decades -- is explained by the plan's creators in two areas -- restoration and economics.

They said the higher winter flows and drop in summer flows "will be phased to accommodate channel restoration activities," since "many of the stream channels and flood plains in the basin have been altered from their natural conditions by several decades of irrigation storage and release."

They also noted that the conservation efforts "will require several years and several hundred million dollars to complete." and that phasing will assure "they aren't faced with the risk of having insufficient water to support agriculture."

The Deschutes Basin is comprised of 8 irrigation districts.

On Thursday, after the document was posted for public review but not yet formally published, the Center for Biological Diversity issued this news release:

Deschutes River Conservation Plan Fails to Restore River, Fish, Frogs

Federal Plan Preserves Unsustainable Flows, Water Waste for Decades

BEND, Ore.— A final habitat conservation plan and environmental impact statement announced today by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the Upper Deschutes River, Whychus Creek and Crooked River largely preserves existing management of the river in the near term and fails to adequately help threatened bull trout, steelhead and Oregon spotted frogs.

Current management of the Upper Deschutes has turned flows in the river upside-down, with low flows in the winter and high flows in the summer. This practice harms fish, frogs and the health of the river.

“The Deschutes River is a national treasure and deserves better,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “By preserving existing flows for the next seven years, this plan leaves the Oregon spotted frog, fish and the river itself high and dry.”

Once known for its remarkably even year-round streamflow, the Deschutes is now treated like an irrigation ditch, with low flows of 100 cubic feet per second in the winter, when water is being stored in the Wickiup Reservoir. In the summer, when the stored water is released and transported to Bend — where it’s diverted for irrigation — flows climb to levels as high as 1,800 cfs.

These low flows dry the banks and weaken the riparian vegetation, while the subsequent high flows uproot and wash away the vegetation critical to anchoring the fine volcanic soils of the streambanks. This harms Oregon spotted frogs, which are nearly gone from the river, and the river’s world-class fishery.

“Irrigators with senior water rights have been wasting water for decades,” said Tod Heisler, rivers program director at Central Oregon LandWatch. “We can no longer afford wasteful irrigation practices on urban lots and hobby farms. Eliminating them is the key to providing more water for fish, frogs and real farmers.”

The habitat conservation plan released today by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, seven irrigation districts and the city of Prineville will not require any changes to water flow in the Upper Deschutes for the next seven years. After that, winter flows will increase to 300 cfs in year 8, and 400 to 500 cfs by year 13. In 2017 the Service concluded that a minimum of 600 cfs in winter was needed to save the Oregon spotted frog, providing clear indication this very slow plan won’t be enough.

It’s also unclear how the districts will reach the flow targets. The habitat conservation plan only vaguely refers to piping of irrigation canals, meaning even these very modest flow targets may not be met.

Today’s plan does not address the significant waste of water, particularly in the Central Oregon Irrigation District, which because of its senior water rights has little incentive to work to conserve more water for the river. Instead, the plan appears to rely primarily on piping the major canals diverting water from the river. This will save some water but is extremely expensive and time-consuming, such that it is unclear whether there will ever be sufficient funds. Addressing some of the most inefficient use of water, such as flood irrigation, would be much cheaper and could be accomplished more quickly.

On Whychus Creek, despite years of publicly financed conservation projects in Three Sisters Irrigation District, the plan does not provide adequate stream flows for spawning and migrating steelhead.

The HCP also fails the Crooked, with no commitment to year-round minimum flows needed to meet the biological needs of steelhead.

“The HCP fails the Crooked River and its fish. The same irrigation districts that have prevented the establishment of streamflow protections on the Crooked now want immunity under the law for the harm they cause imperiled steelhead” said John DeVoe, WaterWatch of Oregon’s executive director. “These districts need to do more.”

Conservation groups are reviewing today’s plan and considering options for challenge.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Article Topic Follows: Government-politics

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