Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan Complete

On December 31, 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the completion of the Deschutes River Basin Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). The HCP is a collaborative strategy to share water resources in the Deschutes Basin, covering irrigation and related water management operations while enhancing fish and wildlife habitat.
After twelve years of hard work and collaboration, the eight irrigation districts in the Deschutes Basin and the City of Prineville are excited to move forward with the conservation measures set forth in the HCP!

Overlooking the Deschutes Wild and Scenic River. Photo Credit: Bob Wick/BLM

Read more

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.”

 

Read more

Feds sign off on Ochoco Irrigation’s nearly 17-mile canal piping project

Published 

Goal is to boost streamflows in the Crooked River, McKay Creek

PRINEVILLE, Ore. (KTVZ) — The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service announced Tuesday it has released a Final Watershed Plan-Environmental Assessment and a Finding of No Significant Impact for the Ochoco Irrigation District’s Infrastructure Modernization Project.

NRCS said it “has determined that the project will not cause significant local, regional or national impacts to the environment. With a completed environmental assessment in place, the project is now eligible for federal funding and may move forward into construction.”

The project will install a total of 16.8 miles of buried pipeline, which will replace the open, unlined canals and laterals of Grimes Flat and the IronHorse section of the Crooked River Distribution Canal.

The project will also install a new pipeline to deliver irrigation water to the upper McKay Creek lands associated with the McKay Creek Water Rights Switch.

Related improvements include replacing aging pump stations and raising canal banks to deepen channels.

“The project will improve irrigation water management and delivery, reduce district operations and maintenance costs, improve public safety along piped sections, and increase streamflow in McKay Creek and the Crooked River,” the NRCS announcement said.

Installing a new pipeline in the upper reaches of McKay Creek will improve water supply reliability for farmers and ranchers in that area while restoring seasonal flow of up to 11.2 cubic feet per second of streamflow in a portion of the creek.

Converting open-ditch irrigation canals into underground, closed-pipe systems will reduce water loss from seepage by up to an estimated 5.9 cubic feet per second, of which an estimated 4.82 cubic feet per second will be allocated instream in the Crooked River, and any remaining water savings will improve water supplies for existing irrigated lands in the district.

The project is a joint effort among NRCS, Ochoco Irrigation District, the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Deschutes River Conservancy, the Energy Trust of Oregon, Farmers Conservation Alliance, and in coordination with other agencies, stakeholders and the public.

The Final EA and other supporting documents for the project are available at https://oregonwatershedplans.org/ochoco-id offsite link image .

The project may be partially funded through the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations Program, administered by NRCS and authorized by Public Law 83-566.

Through this program, NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to local organizations (project sponsors) for planning and carrying out projects that help solve natural resource and related economic problems in a specific watershed.

These issues can include watershed protection, flood prevention, erosion and sediment control, water supply, water quality, fish and wildlife habitat enhancement, and wetlands creation.

For more information about this and other irrigation modernization efforts, visit http://www.oregonwatershedplans.org offsite link image or visit the NRCS Oregon public notice webpage.

Read more

Tug of water: Plan restores flows to Upper Deschutes but may fall short for threatened species

OPB
By Bradley W. Parks (OPB)
Bend, Ore. Dec. 2, 2020

Frogs and fish in the Upper Deschutes River will get more water in the winter, but it may not be enough to protect them.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is set to decide on a plan to conserve habitat for threatened species in Central Oregon’s Deschutes Basin. It will mark the end of a yearslong debate over how to allocate a limited resource to meet the needs of fish, frogs, farmers and all others who use water.

Humans have tinkered with Central Oregon rivers over the years to meet the water demands of a growing region, ravaging habitat for threatened wildlife in the process.

“Our native fish and amphibians have been hurt quite a bit by how we manage the river,” said Tod Heisler, who directs the rivers program for Central Oregon LandWatch. “Essentially we’re managing that Upper [Deschutes] River like an irrigation ditch, not managing it as an aquatic ecosystem.”

If approved, the plan would set in motion a 30-year itinerary to move the basin’s waterways — including the Upper Deschutes and Crooked rivers — back toward their natural state by restoring flows. In short, it means more water for frogs and fish in the winter and, ultimately, less for irrigators in the summer.

Water managers say this lays a foundation for long-term projects to better share water across the basin while also conserving critical habitat.

“Now, it isn’t a fix for the whole river for the next hundred years, but it is a huge, huge benefit to the foundation of that change,” said Craig Horrell, managing director for the Central Oregon Irrigation District and president of the Deschutes Basin Board of Control.

Environmental groups have lined up in opposition to the plan, saying it falls short of protecting fish and frogs in the short term when they need it the most.

The frog in question
A visit to the Upper Deschutes River this time of year shows a lowly trickle of water floating by bald riverbanks and parched side channels, which visualizes a key part of the problem.

The river supports wetland habitat for the Oregon spotted frog, which earned Endangered Species Act protection in 2014. The frog’s listing added urgency to conservation discussions already underway for native fish.

“Over the years the frogs kinda hijacked the fish,” said Mike Britton, general manager for the North Unit Irrigation District.

Related: Frogs, fish and farmers feel out compromise on the Deschutes

Water managers have for years turned the river “off,” so to say, in the winter to store water in reservoirs. Turning the river “on” releases stored water for agricultural use in the spring and summer.

High summer flows basically rip vegetation from riverbanks, while low flows in the winter dry out side channels. That strands fish to freeze and die if they’re not eaten by predators first. It also leaves a wide gulf of land between riparian vegetation and the river’s edge, both of which the frogs need to survive.

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:Become a Sponsor

“It’s an aquatic amphibian that needs water all the time,” Heisler said. “You can imagine that when you drain the water in the winter and then you flood it in the summer, you’ve basically wrecked its prime habitat.”

An Oregon spotted frog floats in an irrigation canal in this photo from July 27, 2016.
An Oregon spotted frog floats in an irrigation canal in this photo from July 27, 2016. The frogs have lost nearly 90% of their historical range.

Brian Feulner / Pacific Legal Foundation

After its listing, the Deschutes Basin’s eight irrigation districts and the city of Prineville had to develop a plan to protect the frog — as well as steelhead, bull trout and other species — in order to legally operate.

“As a district, I can say what we’re promising to do is scary for me to implement, but we’re happy to do it,” said Horrell, with the Central Oregon Irrigation District. “We’re happy that there’s a plan out there finally.”

The plan before the Fish and Wildlife Service would gradually increase the amount of water in the Upper Deschutes in the winter and decrease it in the summer. It essentially flattens the curve of the hydrograph back toward the river’s historically even flow.

“This more balanced water management approach reduces negative habitat impacts and species strandings,” FWS Bend field supervisor Bridget Moran wrote in an email. “Water management changes will be less abrupt than they have been in the past, allowing species to move in and out of habitats to meet their life history needs.”

The plan also contains habitat conservation provisions for frogs and other species on the Crooked River, Whychus Creek and other waterways in the Deschutes Basin.

Too little too late?
The Center for Biological Diversity and WaterWatch led a 2015 lawsuit to increase minimum flows on the Upper Deschutes. They, along with Central Oregon LandWatch, have said the new plan fails the basin and its wildlife.

LandWatch’s Heisler said that while the plan is an improvement, it doesn’t do enough to help fish and frogs right away.

“They’re basically just saying that we’re going to maintain and sustain a very degraded habitat,” he said.

Related: The challenges facing Oregon amphibians

The groups want to see the river restored to a moderate flow immediately, then gradually bumped up, which they argue is more in line with the conclusions of the landmark 2017 Deschutes Basin Study.

“For us, we’ve been hearing since the beginning … that it’s not enough soon enough,” said Britton with the North Unit Irrigation District, “but we’re trying to rewind a hundred years of history and culture.”

The study found that there is enough water to go around in this high desert region if it’s managed efficiently.

Stakeholders, including FWS, seem to agree that restoring flows is a first step that should be followed by on-farm conservation measures, piping and canal projects, and market-style water trading.

The draft version of the plan was released last fall and received more than 1,600 public comments, which guided the final version of the plan submitted in November.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make its permit decisions no sooner than Sunday.

Read more

Feds OK Central Oregon Irrigation District $30 million canal-piping project

Published 

Water savings will pass to North Unit Irrigation District

REDMOND, Ore. (KTVZ) — Plans to modernize a portion of Central Oregon Irrigation District’s irrigation infrastructure by piping canals in the Redmond area have been approved by a federal agency to move forward into construction.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has released a Final Watershed Plan-Environmental Assessment and a Finding of No Significant Impact for the Central Oregon Irrigation District’s Smith Rock-King Way Infrastructure Modernization Project.

NRCS said it has determined that the project will not cause significant local, regional or national impacts to the environment.

The project is a joint effort among NRCS, Central Oregon Irrigation District, the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, Farmers Conservation Alliance, Energy Trust of Oregon and in coordination with other agencies, stakeholders, and the public.

With a completed environmental assessment in place, the project is now eligible for federal funding and may move forward into construction.

The EA and other supporting documents for this project are available at www.oregonwatershedplans.org/central-oregon-id.

Work on the more than $30 million Pilot Butte Canal project is expected to start in 2020, with the first phase scheduled to be completed in 2022, according to a COID news release earlier this year.

The purpose of the project is to improve water conservation in 7.9 miles of District-owned infrastructure, improve water delivery reliability to District patrons within the project area, and improve public safety on up to approximately 7.9 miles of District-owned canal and laterals.

By converting open-ditch canals into underground, closed-piped systems, the project will reduce water loss from seepage by an estimated 29.4 cubic feet per second, or 9,392 acre-feet annually.

Water saved from the project will pass to North Unit Irrigation District during the irrigation season for agricultural use.

In return, North Unit Irrigation District will release an equal volume of water into the Deschutes River from Wickiup Reservoir, protecting the water through instream leases in perpetuity during the winter for instream flows when it is needed most for fish and aquatic species.

The project may be partially funded through the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations Program, administered by NRCS and authorized by Public Law 83-566.

Through this program, NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to local organizations (project sponsors) for planning and carrying out projects that help solve natural resource and related economic problems in a specific watershed.

These issues can include watershed protection, flood prevention, erosion and sediment control, water supply, water quality, fish and wildlife habitat enhancement, and wetlands creation.

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

Read more