Districts make last-ditch effort to conserve water for Deschutes River

By MICHAEL KOHN The Bulletin Dec 12, 2020

Habitat Conservation Plan could require district to release 300 cfs of water into the Deschutes by 2028

As farmers across Central Oregon face a third straight year of drought, and wildlife in this region’s rivers teeter on the brink of extinction, thosewho control the flow of water are primed to pump millions of dollars into infrastructure in a last-ditch effort to help both people and wildlife.

Central Oregon Irrigation District, the largest district in Central Oregon in terms of patrons, is at the vanguard of this effort and expects to pour $100 million over the next decade to pipe a significant portion of its open canals and ditches, said Craig Horrell, the district’s general manager. Tens of millions more will be spent by other irrigation districts in the area.

The two-pronged disaster to both wildlife and the farming community is connected to climate change, as nature simply isn’t delivering the snowpack that it did in decades past. But it’s also a human-caused problem because the irrigation canals in Central Oregon, built more than a century ago, are so porous that they lose half the water that enters them before it can reach its destination.

COID estimates that its Central Oregon canal loses 99 cubic feet of water per second. The district’s Pilot Butte Canal loses 158 cubic feet per second. One cubic foot of water is equivalent to 7.48 gallons of water.

Over the past 12 years, the irrigation districts have overcome differences to form a united front to tackle their collective problem and figure out a way to conserve water for themselves and the environment. Known as the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, that collective is on the brink of finalizing its Habitat Conservation Plan that commits them to water conservation for the next three decades. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service anticipates the plan will be approved by the end of the year.

The plan doesn’t require the districts to pipe their canals — water conservation can also be done through water marketing and on-farm improvements — but with federal funding available to them through grants, piping is certain to feature prominently in their projects.

Central Oregon Irrigation District’s current piping effort is focused on a section of canal between Redmond and Smith Rock. That 8-mile stretch will cost $33 million to pipe and will conserve around 30 cubic feet of water, or 9,392 acre-feet annually.

On deck is a $6 million project to pipe lateral ditches near Smith Rock. On-farm efficiency projects will also be funded.

Other districts are pitching in too. North Unit Irrigation District will construct approximately $32 million in piping projects over the next decade. Swalley Irrigation District will spend $11.8 million over the same period.

The goal of all this piping, as set out in the Habitat Conservation Plan, is to increase the winter flows in the Deschutes to 300 cubic feet per second by 2028. The current winter flow is 105 cubic feet per second.

In exchange for meeting that target, the districts will receive incidental take permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which allows them to operate without the threat of litigation from environmental groups. The wildlife service is expected to make a final permit decision on the plan before the end of this month.

Increasing the flow will benefit Oregon spotted frog habitat, which has been degraded by years of low winter flows and wide swings from winter to high summer flows. Threatened fish in the Deschutes, including red band trout, will also benefit.

Meeting targets likely means piping all 26 miles of the Pilot Butte Canal, said Horrell, a project that could make up the bulk of the $100 million his district plans to spend.

While piping the big canals makes headlines and carries the heaviest expense, piping lateral ditches is also crucial to conserving water, said Kate Fitzpatrick, director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, a nonprofit group that is helping the districts to fund the piping projects.

“We will be working with landowners to incentivize as much of this work as possible to maximize project benefits for the river,” Fitzpatrick added.

Horrell said that irrigation districts and farmers are also spending their own money to improve on-farm operations and delivery systems. Water marketing and leasing are also important components of the overall water-saving plan.

“To meet the lofty goals of the HCP, and to get to 300 cfs in seven years, we will use a variety of tools, including water leasing, water marketing and piping,” said Horrell.

The piping projects are largely dependent on federal funding through the federal Watershed Program known as PL-566, which authorizes the Natural Resources Conservation Service to help local organizations protect and restore watersheds up to 250,000 acres. Funding is currently set at $150 million annually.

The plans to pipe are a team effort. The city of Prineville joined the eight irrigation districts in Central Oregon to submit the Habitat Conservation Plan, and a handful of environmental nonprofits are also teaming up with the districts to collaborate on projects and funding.

“All districts have been actively ramping up to modernize and pipe as much as possible within this decade,” said Jeremiah “Jer” Camarata, general manager for Swalley, which covers 4,331 acres north of Bend and near Tumalo.

But the funding that everyone is counting on to make these pipe projects work is far from certain. Government resources also play a role, and going forward, a post-COVID-19 world could be one of tight resources.

“Each year Congress has to appropriate funds and the state-based programs also depend on variables such as lottery dollars,” said Camarata. “So there are no guarantees that projects will get funded in any given year, which would clearly push the timelines back.”


Shon RaeDistricts make last-ditch effort to conserve water for Deschutes River
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New ‘Raise the Deschutes’ campaign aims to raise awareness of river’s issues

A coalition of Central Oregon conservation-focused partners announced Monday they are launching a regional public awareness campaign to increase knowledge about the opportunities to improve the health of the Deschutes River.Raise the Deschutes is a basin-wide educational campaign supported by Central Oregon partners. The goal is to increase community awareness and understanding of the challenges facing the Deschutes Basin and to garner support for restoring flows to the watershed. www.raisethedeschutes.org


Shon RaeNew ‘Raise the Deschutes’ campaign aims to raise awareness of river’s issues
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Editorial: Close the gap on water in the Deschutes Basin

Bend Bulletin Editorial Board, Published Sept. 9, 2019

Farmers near Madras and Culver have had to again this year let some of their land fallow because of lack of water, as The Bulletin reported on Saturday. But there are possible solutions in the works to better meet the gap between supply and demand for water in the Deschutes Basin.

It could be better for farmers, river flows and better for fish and wildlife. And there is real pressure to find solutions — not only to help farmers but because of the Deschutes River’s Oregon spotted frog. It is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The key is to act on the possibilities discovered in the Deschutes Basin Study. That study was a collaborative effort by federal agencies, the state, irrigation districts, conservation groups, the Deschutes River Conservancy and more to identify problems and solutions for water in the basin.

One possibility that the study identified is as much as 135,000 acre feet of water could be shared by farmers with senior water rights to help farmers with junior water rights, such as those served by North Unit Irrigation District near Madras and Culver. An acre foot of water is the amount of water to cover one acre with one foot of water. It is about 326,000 gallons. Through water sharing that 135,000 acre feet of water could be shifted to where it is arguably needed more. And the great news is Central Oregon Irrigation District, a senior rights holder, and North Unit are already looking at ways to do more.

Of course, if it was without complication, more sharing would already be happening. The basin’s irrigation system wasn’t specifically built to share water between districts or divert more water to the Deschutes River. It was built for irrigation district patrons to take what they get. For instance, COID’s system of canals and laterals were not initially built to “deliver on demand” — with a system of gates, meters and laterals that would make sharing water with North Unit easier. There is also seepage in unlined canals, which makes it harder to get water where it is intended.

Money is another factor. It costs money to retrofit. More water patrons would also be interested in sharing their water if there is a financial incentive. Where is that money going to come from? At least according an analysis prepared for the basin study, sharing projects will cost one-tenth per acre foot the cost of projects that are more singularly focused on piping or building more storage. That’s not all that simple, either. New piping projects may be required to facilitate any sharing and keep irrigation districts fully operational.

Later this month, many of the same groups that collaborated on the basin study are going to start meeting again to try to make some of possibilities identified in the study happen. It’s not an irrigation season too soon.

Shon RaeEditorial: Close the gap on water in the Deschutes Basin
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Swalley Modernization Project Authorized to Move Forward

Piping project will keep more water in-stream for fish and sustain local agriculture 

(April 4, 2019) – Plans to continue modernizing aging irrigation infrastructure in the Swalley Irrigation District recently have been approved to move forward into construction, marking yet another major milestone in irrigation improvements that will benefit farmers, fish, and local communities in the Deschutes Basin.

The final watershed plan and environmental assessment for the Swalley project was officially authorized on March 12th by Matt Lohr, Chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The plan was developed in partnership with the Swalley Irrigation District, the Deschutes Basin Board of Control (DBBC), and the Farmers Conservation Alliance. 

The Swalley Irrigation District has been awarded $11.2 million in federal funds through the NRCS Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program. Swalley will use the funds to modernize and pipe 16.6 miles of their remaining open canals to improve water conservation, water delivery reliability, and public safety, as well as contribute to increases in streamflow in the middle Deschutes River. The project will occur in phases over seven years. 

“To date, Swalley has piped 45 percent of their water delivery system and has made the single largest conserved water transfer in the state, providing critical support to habitat along the middle Deschutes River,” said Jer Camarata, Swalley Irrigation District general manager. “The District also produces enough renewable energy to power about 250 homes and businesses near the Old Mill and Southern Crossing neighborhoods in Bend, thanks to a partnership with Energy Trust of Oregon.”

“Piping our remaining canals is just a continuation of many years of effort by many people and many organizations, and we expect that these remaining large projects will offer huge gains for the community at-large,” Camarata added. “New infrastructure is being engineered with a 250-1,000 year lifespan. Pioneers and the federal government invested in our future 130 years ago and this is no different except for now we have a larger community to take care of. These projects are being designed to be truly robust.”

The first anticipated project phase will be the Rogers Lateral Piping Project, which will install 16,045 feet of pipe and reduce water loss by up to 20 percent. The first phase is expected to be completed in early 2020. 

Funding for this phase comes from $1.3 million in federal funds and $646,000 in state funding from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB). OWEB works with communities across Oregon to help protect and restore healthy watersheds. 

“OWEB is pleased to participate in projects that improve irrigation infrastructure and make more water available in stream, while also demonstrating the effectiveness of collaborative efforts at the federal and state levels,” said OWEB Executive Director Meta Loftsgaarden.

The modernization of Swalley’s remaining open irrigation infrastructure will conserve up to 6,172 acre-feet of water annually for instream and agricultural use. The improvements will also reduce the irrigation district’s operation and maintenance costs, as well as reduce electricity costs and consumption from pumping. Swalley Irrigation District currently serves 668 patrons, which includes Bend Parks & Recreation District, Bend-LaPine Schools, the City of Bend, Avion Water, the US Forest Service, and many others.

After several years of planning and considering public input through the development of an environmental assessment, the NRCS and project sponsors determined the project will not cause significant local, regional or national impacts to the environment. 

This modernization project is a team effort between the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, The Deschutes Basin Board of Control, the Swalley Irrigation District, Farmers Conservation Alliance, and Energy Trust of Oregon to help Oregon irrigators conserve water, reduce energy consumption, increase irrigation delivery efficiency and renewable energy potential, improve public safety, and benefit instream habitat for threatened and endangered fish species. 

“We’re proud of the collective work we’ve accomplished together to help modernize Oregon’s irrigation infrastructure,” said Julie Davies O’Shea, Executive Director of Farmers Conservation Alliance. “It will take continued investments from the government, irrigation districts, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector to continue supporting this important work.” 

This project builds on a history of collaboration and water conservation in the Deschutes Basin. “We are proud of the partnerships we have had over the last twenty years with irrigation districts across central Oregon to improve the water delivery systems that sustain agriculture. Irrigation modernization is essential to water conservation and a key component to ensuring a healthy, restored Deschutes River Basin,” said Ron Nelson, Executive Director at Deschutes River Conservancy. “The additional resources that the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farmers Conservation Alliance and Energy Trust of Oregon have brought into the basin will increase the pace and scale of these projects in districts across central Oregon, amplifying the benefits for agriculture and for our rivers.”

Background on the Planning Process

On December 3, 2018 the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) released a Notice of Availability of a Final Watershed Plan-Environmental Assessment (Plan-EA) and a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the Swalley Irrigation District Modernization Project. After several years of planning and considering public input, NRCS and project sponsors have determined the project will not cause significant local, regional or national impacts to the environment.

On September 21, 2018 NRCS released a Draft Plan-EA. Comments were accepted from September 21, 2018 to October 24, 2018. A public meeting was held October 10, 2018 at Cascades Academy in Bend to discuss the Draft Plan-EA and accept public comments. Comments were used to develop the Final Plan-EA and a response to each comment is provided in Appendix A of the Final Plan-EA.

The FONSI, Final Plan-EA, and other supporting planning documents are available below.

View the December 3, 2018 Notice of Availability and news release from NRCS.

For further information please contact: Farmers Conservation Alliance, 541-716-6085

Shon RaeSwalley Modernization Project Authorized to Move Forward
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Arnold Irrigation canal-piping project public meeting set

KTVZ.COM April 2

BEND, Ore. – The Arnold Irrigation District and project partners are holding a public meeting later this month to gather public input on a canal piping project to modernize aging infrastructure to conserve water, reduce energy use, improve operational efficiencies and enhance fish and wildlife habitat in the Deschutes River.

By converting open-ditch irrigation canals into underground, closed-pipe systems, the proposed Arnold Irrigation District Modernization Project could reduce seepage water losses by up to 14,607 acre-feet, a rate of up to 45.1 cubic feet per second, over the entire irrigation season, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service said in a news release Wednesday.

The project is sponsored by the Deschutes Basin Board of Control and the Arnold Irrigation District, with funding and technical support from the Energy Trust of Oregon, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farmers Conservation Alliance.

The proposed project is located primarily in central Deschutes County on the south side of the city of Bend.

Members of the public are invited to provide input to help guide planning efforts during a scoping meeting on Wednesday, April. 17 from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Elk Meadow Elementary Gymnasium, located at 60880 Brookswood Blvd. in Bend.

Participants will have an opportunity to learn more about the proposed irrigation improvements at the meeting and submit their comments, ideas and concerns.

The meeting location is accessible to persons with disabilities. A request for an interpreter for the hearing impaired or for other accommodations for persons with disabilities should be made at least 48 hours before the meeting to Raija Bushnell (541) 249-3495 or Raija.Bushnell@fcasolutions.org

Public comments may be submitted through May 15, 2019. Comments may be emailed to arnold.id.comments@gmail.com or submitted online at www.oregonwatershedplans.org or mailed to: Farmers Conservation Alliance, 102 State Street, Hood River, OR 97031.

Following the public comment period, project partners will develop a Draft Watershed Plan – Environmental Assessment. The public will have an opportunity to review the draft plan and provide additional input.

Once complete, the watershed plan will enable NRCS to apply for funding to construct irrigation improvements through its Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention program, also referred to as PL-566.

Through this program, NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to states, local governments and Tribes (project sponsors) to plan and implement authorized watershed project plans for the purpose of watershed protection, flood mitigation, water quality improvements, soil erosion reduction, rural, municipal and industrial water supply, irrigation, water management, sediment control, fish and wildlife enhancement, and hydropower.

For more information about this and other irrigation modernization projects in Oregon, visit www.oregonwatershedplans.org or visit the NRCS Oregon public notice webpage here.

Shon RaeArnold Irrigation canal-piping project public meeting set
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Another irrigation district piping project coming to Bend

Bend Bulletin Published April 5, 2019

Central Oregon residents will have a chance to weigh in later this month on a massive project to pipe canals to the south of Bend.

The Bend-based Arnold Irrigation District will hold a public meeting at Elk Meadow Elementary on April 17 as part of its proposal to replace its system of aging, open-air canals with enclosed, high-density polyethylene pipe. If the small irrigation district is able to replace its entire network of canals, the district estimates that it will be able to conserve more than 45 cubic feet of water per second, enough to flood more than 14,600 acres with a foot of water over an irrigation season.

“It just sounds like a good deal, and it’s probably something the district needs to do just out of social responsibility,” said Shawn Gerdes, manager and board secretary of Arnold Irrigation District.

Arnold Irrigation District maintains a network of 39 miles of canals and pipes, which it uses to provide about 640 customers with water diverted from the Deschutes River around Little Lava Island during irrigation season. Gerdes said the district has piped about 7.5 miles of the system, primarily in areas where subdivisions have gone in.

The remainder of the system, however, relies on open-air canals that were built about 1900, Gerdes said.

Like similar systems in Central Oregon, the canals lose a significant amount of water to evaporation and seepage. Making matters worse, Gerdes said much of the network was built in areas with lava rock, and water can seep into the porous rock more easily than in other parts of Central Oregon.

Consequently, the irrigation district loses just under half the water it diverts from the river before it reaches the district’s customers, Gerdes said. By replacing the canals with pipe, the district can divert less water while still delivering just as much to customers.

“It’s a way that we can actually put quite a bit of water back in the river,” Gerdes said.

Arnold Irrigation District is one of several irrigation districts operating in the Deschutes Basins that have kicked off ambitious piping projects in recent years, thanks to a growing network of grants and other funding mechanisms.

Last fall, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., spearheaded an effort through the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture to secure $30 million that could go toward piping Tumalo Irrigation District canals. Three Sisters Irrigation District has replaced more than 90% of its canals with enclosed pipe.

Margi Hoffmann, community relations director for Farmers Conservation Alliance, which works with irrigation districts to help secure state and federal funding, said Swalley Irrigation District recently had its plan to replace its system approved by the National Resources Conservation Service.

Hoffmann estimated that piping the system will cost $48 million. Because of that, Gerdes said securing outside funding is critical to getting a piping project going for a small district like Arnold.

“We really haven’t done any big piping projects at all,” Gerdes said. “This is all brand-new ground for us.”

To apply for federal funding through the NRCS Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program, Hoffmann said districts must submit a plan and go through a robust public process. During the meeting on April 17, residents will have the chance to learn about the project and weigh in on which parts of the system should be piped first. Public comments on the project will be accepted until May 15.

“This is really the first step,” Hoffmann said.

Gerdes said the piping project likely won’t break ground until 2021 at the earliest, and will likely focus on the district’s main canal before moving onto the secondary canals. While he acknowledged he didn’t quite know what to expect at the meeting, he said he was hopeful the community would understand the need.

“If you get the community and everybody else behind (the project), it can happen faster,” Gerdes said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

Shon RaeAnother irrigation district piping project coming to Bend
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Oregon’s water infrastructure hasn’t been upgraded for 100 years. Some think it’s time to fix that.

by  Published in Energy and Environment

Part one of a new series of stories that investigates how the business community is creating solutions to climate change.  

Every summer day in rural Oregon, farmers order up water from an army of “ditch riders,” the bartenders of irrigation. They run between canals, opening and shutting valves to divert the flow to their customers. Somewhere between a quarter to 60% of that precious water evaporates or seeps into the ground before it reaches farms. This isn’t a scene from Oregon circa 1900. It’s Oregon in 2018.

Like other western states, Oregon thirsts for some $7.6 billion of upgrades to its antiquated canals, dams and wastewater treatment plants. In Central Oregon alone, 1,600 canals need upgrading at an estimated cost of around $2 billion. To put that in perspective, the landmark transportation package legislators passed in 2017 funded $5.3 billion of improvements.

Healthcare, affordable housing and transportation top the agenda at planning meetings. Water, not so much.

“The last time Oregon upgraded its water infrastructure was when Phil Knight was making shoes in a waffle iron,” Bobby Cochran, executive director of Willamette Partnership, told policymakers and business executives last week at an annual economic summit in Portland.

Climate change compounds the problem. A drought has plagued parts of Central Oregon for years. By 2080, Cochran says, more than half of the precipitation that hits Mount Hood will arrive as rain, not snow. It will run away before farmers and cities can use it.

Related Story: Climate change dominates business leadership talks

“Almost any day you open a paper it’s talking about how reservoirs are way way down,” says Jed Jorgensen, an energy project manager at Energy Trust of Oregon.“All the research is pointing to a change in how we see rain and snow accumulating in the state.”

Low snowpack and persistent drought have taken their toll in the Deschutes Basin. The drought spanned five of the past six years and exhausted the Wickiup Reservoir, southwest of Bend, for the first time in decades. Mike Britton, manager of the basin’s North Unit Irrigation District says, “this last year was far more extreme than what I’ve seen in the past.”

Britton doesn’t hold climate change responsible, but he says, “Talk to me in five years and if it’s still like this I might change my story.”

“The last time Oregon upgraded its water infrastructure was when Phil Knight was making shoes in a waffle iron,”
—Bobby Cochran, executive director of Willamette Partnership

Food production consumes around 80% of the water used in the Western United states. As cities expand and groundwater levels shrink, urban and rural areas could clash over water rights. Ground zero is the Umatilla Irrigation District, home to four of the state’s seven critical groundwater areas. Data centers and population growth are encroaching on farmers’ needs.

“As the cities grow in our region they’re sucking the same groundwater as the ag[riculture] producers need,” says J.R. Cook, founder of the Northeast Oregon Water Association in Pendleton. “They’re starting to cut their own throats.”

In the Willamette Valley, heart of Oregon’s agricultural production and wine country, farmers are turning to different crops as water runs short. Most of the region’s reserves are stored in Detroit Lake for irrigation and a federal flood control project. But now cities and industry want in, prompting a conversation about reallocation.

“We are literally trying to stabilize our economy by starting at the first level, the basic necessity of water,” says Danielle Gonzalez, a management analyst for Marion County.

Currently, Salem gets first dibs, ahead of smaller rural communities upstream along the Santiam River. “It’s a potential for conflict if we don’t get that right,” says Gonzalez.

The Marion County board of commissioners is working with water experts, economists and federal agencies on reallocation options. In February, ECONorthwest will release the final report on its findings.

A canal in Alfalfa, near Bend.

There’s a simple, if costly, solution to some of rural Oregon’s water woes: put canal water in big pipes under pressure. Oregon is leading the charge among western states with its statewide Irrigation Modernization Project, launched in 2015 by Energy Trust of Oregon and Farmers’ Conservation Alliance. Energy Trust has funded about $200,000 for 20 districts across the state to begin planning.

Pipes solve the waste from runoff, seepage and evaporation. Districts that have installed pipes have found themselves with a surplus of water that can power micro-hydro systems or be returned to sensitive ecosystems.

The Sisters Irrigation District saved 9 million kilowatt-hours of power after piping almost all of its 63 miles. Farmers Irrigation District in Hood River saved money on energy and tackled two climate issues at once—creating water sources that firefighters used during the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. Farmers get a more efficient supply of water for their crops, especially important given the recent droughts.

“You’re saving energy,” Jorgensen says, “but you’re also saving that farmer a lot of money.”

Federal money and state matching funds will prove essential for pushing the costly projects through. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has financed $30 million of improvements in the Tumalo Irrigation District near Bend. Britton’s district in the Deschutes Basin won $50 million in federal funding for pipes.

A plan from the modernization project is well on its way to solving some of the district’s water issues. But Britton says he’s still searching “desperately” for partners to match the funds for the vast project. “That’s really what this district needs,” he says, “help putting pipe in the ground.”

Related Story: Rural county stakes future on renewable energy

To date, the modernization project has updated around 579 miles of canals across the state with pipes of up to 11 feet wide, making it one of the largest piping projects in the West. Jorgensen says other cities and states are looking for ways to replicate the success so far.

“These projects have tremendous potential to be a game changer to help the environment adapt to a changing climate,” Jorgensen says. “The goal is how can we accelerate this work and scale it across Oregon”

The clock is ticking. Much of the state’s water infrastructure remains unprepared for the increased flooding and drought that climate scientists have predicted. As the conversations among state leaders take on a more urgent tone, more large-scale projects could take shape.

“We’re right at the cusp of trying to figure all this out,” Gonzalez says. “We’ve been so used to having all the water that we want. I don’t know if we’ve thought about it at this level.”

Next week in the series, we’ll dive deeper into water management, exploring projects that cut costs through designing with natural systems. 

Shon RaeOregon’s water infrastructure hasn’t been upgraded for 100 years. Some think it’s time to fix that.
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Guest column: City, county, irrigation districts committed to long-term Crooked River health

BEND BULLETIN: Published Nov. 24, 2018


Central Oregon’s current drought conditions, coupled with a lower-than-average snowpack forecast this winter, has understandably fueled concerns for those of us who value the rivers and streams of the Deschutes Basin.

In Prineville and Crook County, our lifeblood water is the Crooked River. It is part of our lives, flowing past our city, homes, farms and ranches. It’s vital in so many ways — from recreation and irrigation to our quality of life.

Therefore, it is our collective duty to balance the region’s usage needs with the needs of a healthy river.

While multiagency collaboration and irrigation efficiency upgrades may not grab newspaper headlines, the reality is that numerous local governments, irrigation districts and state and federal agencies are proactively investing in and moving forward on Crooked River conservation projects to improve streamflow and restore river habitat.

For example, Central Oregon’s eight irrigation districts and the City of Prineville are working together on the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan, an unprecedented, collaborative effort to improve fish and wildlife habitat in the Deschutes Basin. The HCP will enable the districts and city to continue to supply water for irrigation and municipal purposes throughout Central Oregon.

Other proactive conservation efforts these groups have recently undertaken include:

• Crooked River Wetland Complex, in which more than two miles of riparian improvements to the Crooked River have been implemented, as well as the construction of over 120 acres of wetlands, benefiting many species of fish and wildlife while lowering river temperatures.

• Protective fish screens to prevent small fish from entering irrigation canals, enabling them to move downstream safely. In addition, installation of fish ladders have helped strengthen fish populations by allowing them to once again migrate freely.

• Modernization of aging irrigation infrastructure to conserve water, and improve streamflow.

• Replacement of leaky main water pipes, installation of new meters and advance urban management saves more than 130 million gallons of water annually for the City of Prineville.

What’s more, the Crooked River Collaborative Water Security and Jobs Act of 2014 accelerates fish and wildlife habitat improvements to the Crooked River, including the reintroduction of steelhead and higher streamflows.

The 2014 Act allocates nearly half of the total stored water in the Prineville Reservoir to fish and wildlife resources, nearly 60,000-acre-feet. And, thanks to the leadership of Sen. Jeff ­Merkley, Rep. Greg Walden and former Gov. John Kitzhaber, those water supplies are intended to benefit fish and wildlife downstream without harming existing water rights holders on the Crooked River.

This effort was the culmination of more than 30 years worth of collaborative work by the Ochoco and North Unit irrigation districts, city of Prineville, Crook County, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and many other conservation groups.

Because of these initiatives, habitat conditions for fish and wildlife, including the Oregon spotted frog, steelhead and others, are improving throughout the Deschutes Basin.

Today, there is a little over 20 cubic feet of water per second flowing into Prineville Reservoir and over 50 cfs flowing out of Bowman Dam. It is important to note: July through Oct. 9, there was zero inflow with over 240 cfs released for the fish, farming, recreation and the city’s municipal and industrial water for the benefit of fisheries. Farmers faced water cutbacks all summer.

While we are steadfast in our commitment to conservation efforts on the Crooked River, we can’t change the weather. Given the drought conditions in the Deschutes Basin, flows into the reservoir are no doubt cause for concern. Fortunately, state and federal agencies like the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are closely involved with decisions about the amount of water to be released for fish and wildlife purposes.

So, while Mother Nature may not be doing her part to solve the water challenges we face, your elected officials and state and federal agencies most certainly are.

— Betty Roppe is the mayor of Prineville. Brian Barney is a Crook County Commissioner.

Shon RaeGuest column: City, county, irrigation districts committed to long-term Crooked River health
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El Niño could bring warm, dry winter to Central Oregon

Snowfall varies widely in El Niño years



Published Oct. 20, 2018

As winter approaches, the evidence suggesting another low-snow year for Central Oregon and much of the Pacific Northwest is mounting.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center’s most recent update to the winter outlook notes a 70 percent to 75 percent chance of a weak El Niño weather pattern developing over the Pacific Ocean in the next couple of months. For much of Oregon, this may mean warmer temperatures and less snowfall.

“It doesn’t mean you’re not going to see winter; it just means you’re going to see temperatures that are on average higher than normal,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center.

El Niño is the name given to a climate pattern that involves warmer-than-normal sea water and atmospheric changes in the central Pacific Ocean. El Niño patterns affect regions of North America in different ways, although they’re known for bringing less snow than usual to Central Oregon, said Marilyn Lohmann, hydrologist for the National Weather Service’s Pendleton office.

In a region mired in drought after a series of low-snow winters, another dry, warm winter could exacerbate problems throughout the Deschutes River Basin for farmers and fish.

“I think there’s some anxious folks, to be honest,” said Mike Britton, general manager of North Unit Irrigation District.

Halpert said the Climate Prediction Center, which provides data and predictions designed to help communities prepare for climate risks, looks at a variety of indicators when predicting an El Niño event, including surface and subsurface water temperatures and the location of rainfall in the tropics. While the rainfall location hasn’t yet squared with what the center would expect during an El Niño year, the water temperature is approaching the threshold that would suggest a weak El Niño, he said.

The Climate Prediction Center is planning to update its El Niño prediction in mid-November, when some of the climate indicators will be more settled, Halpert said.

If it does come to fruition, there’s no telling precisely how an El Niño pattern would affect Central Oregon. History suggests it will cause a milder winter than normal.

Bend receives an average of about 31 inches of snow between October and April, Lohmann said. During 11 years where a weak El Niño system was present, the city averaged 24.2 inches, about 22 percent less than a typical winter.

Lohmann added that snowfall in the 11 years the weather service examined varied dramatically. Totals ranged from 4.8 inches to 49 inches during weak El Niño years.

The last weak El Niño, which occurred during the 2014-15 winter, was one of Central Oregon’s driest winters to date, with just 8 inches of snow falling in Bend all year, virtually none of which lasted until spring, Lohmann said. By contrast, the El Niño pattern that occurred the following winter was much stronger globally, although it brought a roughly average amount of snow to Bend and Central Oregon.

“Each one is different, and there’s a lot of other atmospheric things in play, as well,” Lohmann said.

The Climate Prediction Center is forecasting warmer-than-usual weather in Oregon and Washington, with a roughly equal chance of being drier-than-normal or wetter-than-normal, Halpert said.

Central Oregon’s snowpack is susceptible to small fluctuations in temperature, which can make the difference between precipitation falling as rain instead of snow, Lohmann said.

“It just takes a few degrees, especially in the mountains,” she said.

Central Oregon saw significantly less snow than usual last winter and spring, which left the region in bad shape once irrigation season began. Wickiup Reservoir, Central Oregon’s largest, reached its lowest level in 60 years just months after filling to capacity, thanks to irrigation demand and a lack of precipitation throughout the year.

Water levels at several large reservoirs in the Crooked River Basin also dropped well below their seasonal averages.

North Unit Irrigation District, which relies heavily on Wickiup Reservoir, sets allotment totals for farmers during dry years, but still left Wickiup at 1 percent full by the end of irrigation season, Britton said. If there’s another dry year, Britton said, more farmers could leave portions of their fields unsown to conserve water.

“We’re starting to see a lot of fallow ground,” Britton said.

A light snowpack could hurt fish living in Central Oregon’s rivers. Kimberley Priestley, senior policy analyst for WaterWatch of Oregon, said the Crooked River is more snow-driven than the Deschutes, making it more vulnerable to a single dry winter. Low levels on the Crooked River could cause problems for redband trout, steelhead and other species living in the river.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

Shon RaeEl Niño could bring warm, dry winter to Central Oregon
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