By Hilary Corrigan

The Bulletin

Central Oregon farmers listened Wednesday night to details of a recent settlement on the Oregon spotted frog and sought answers on future water levels, frog populations, ways to improve the animal’s habitat and whether their own operations could get protection.

The Deschutes Basin Board of Control — a coalition of several area irrigation districts — hosted the meeting at Redmond High School, drawing about 90 people.

Irrigation district patrons, including farmers and those with livestock, questioned whether the settlement’s changes in Deschutes River water levels might harm their growing; whether the frog’s population really is too low; whether irrigation and dam operations really harm the animal’s habitat; whether other influences like predators may harm the frog more; and whether the changes meant to mitigate impacts to the frog might harm farming in the region.

“Who’s watching out for us?” an audience member asked.

Water levels change every fall and spring for irrigation needs. Reduced flows from Wickiup Dam in the fall store water through the winter for the next year’s irrigation season.

But river advocates have long argued that the switch — sometimes a drop to around 30 cfs after running at 2,000 cfs through the summer, for instance, then back up again in the spring — helps erode the waterway and strand fish, among other problems.

Recent lawsuits brought by conservation groups argued that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had violated the Endangered Species Act partly by failing to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the effect of dam operations on the Oregon spotted frog, a protected animal. A settlement late last month among federal, environmental and irrigation organizations set various provisions.

For instance, the irrigation districts must maintain a minimum water level of 100 cubic feet per second from mid-September 2016 through March 2017 for winter flows in the Upper Deschutes River. And water levels at Crane Prairie Reservoir cannot drop below 35,000 acre feet at any time. The Center for Biological Diversity, WaterWatch of Oregon, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the Arnold, Central Oregon, Lone Pine, North Unit and Tumalo irrigation districts signed on to the agreement.

The measures in the settlement serve as an interim step. The districts expect a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion and authorization in July 2016 that would allow for a legal “take” — death or harm to the frog or its habitat due to dam operations — of a certain number of frogs. That authorization would expire in summer 2019, when the districts aim to have in place a long-term plan on habitat conservation, with set provisions.

“We can’t keep doing things like we’ve always done them,” David Filippi, an attorney representing DBBC, told the crowd.

Audience members voiced concern over whether they would get enough water and at the right times for their growing seasons. They also wondered whether frog management steps would mirror those meant to help the spotted owl years ago in Pacific Northwest forests, arguing that area farming could decline like the timber industry at that time. Others voiced support for projects to install pipes in irrigation canals to save water, and of making the river and habitat healthy, calling that outcome the ultimate goal. They also suggested relocating the frog, starting a captive breeding effort or creating habitat for the animal.

But such efforts can grow very costly and require permanent maintenance and supervision, said Marty Vaughn, a wildlife biologist for DBBC.

Vaughn described the ongoing effort to craft a longer-term habitat conservation plan as a complicated process that will take more time. But it will provide durable, long-lasting provisions and a level of certainty that will help all parties involved, he said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor Bridget Moran noted that the frog got listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because it had declined, a finding determined through a process that reviewed population and distribution data for the animal and linked the decline to habitat loss.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,

hcorrigan@bendbulletin.com

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