The irrigation districts managing water in the Deschutes River basin will boost river flows and change management of local reservoirs to protect an endangered frog under a settlement filed in federal court Friday.
Five irrigation districts will ensure the Upper Deschutes River flows at a minimum of 100 feet per second between September and March. That stretch of river over the winter can get as low as 20 feet per second.
The proposed settlement, “reluctantly” agreed to by the at least one of the districts, stems from a pair of lawsuits filed by two environmental groups last December and January seeking to protect the Oregon spotted frog, which lives in the area.
“This is not the end, this is the beginning of the process,” said Jim McCarthy, a spokesman for WaterWatch of Oregon, which sued three irrigation districts in January.
The group claimed the districts’ management of the Crane Prairie and Wickiup reservoirs and Crescent Lake dam left stream flows dangerously low for the endangered frog. They said the Upper Deschutes River was being managed as an irrigation canal, leading the frog down a path toward extinction.
The irrigation districts in the lawsuit included Tumalo, Central Oregon and North Unit. Two others and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation later joined the suit as intervenors on the side of the irrigation districts. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit over the spotted frog last December against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The proposed agreement also would require the irrigation districts and Bureau of Reclamation to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a long-term plan to protect the frog.
Farmers in the Tumalo Irrigation District will receive about 30 percent less water in a good year, according to the district’s manager, Ken Rieck.
“This is just going to set us back to where we were in 1990 as far as the water levels go,” Rieck said. “The farms are going to be hurting.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what impact farmers in the other irrigation districts would face.
In a release announcing the settlement, the Tumalo Irrigation District said the agreement was a setback to water conservation work.
“This settlement, draconian at best, was deemed by the Tumalo Irrigation District Board as the lesser of two evils as it avoids prolonged and cost-prohibitive legal and environmental battles,” the group wrote. “If the District fought the Federal Government and private lawsuits on the Endangered Species Act the odds are (Tumalo Irrigation District) would lose.”
The environmental groups had argued drastic differences in stream flow flooded or dried out the frog’s habitat. U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken declined the groups’ request for immediate action in March, saying instead she preferred the groups work together.
Farmers and conservation groups were already working with the federal government toward a long-term conservation plan when the two environmental groups filed suit. But Janette Brimmer, an attorney for WaterWatch, said the settlement, if approved, would lead to faster protection for the frog.
“It was really questionable what they were going to do,” Brimmer said. “There were no deadlines. We did not have any guarantees of minimum flows.”
With the settlement, Brimmer said, “We definitely have protections. It’s definitely making progress.”
— Reporter: 406-589-4347,