Thanks to aging infrastructure, complicated legal snags and other factors, some of the irrigation districts operating within the Deschutes Basin are falling short of water. However, a grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation should provide a partial solution.
In September, Central Oregon Irrigation District received a $400,000 grant from the bureau, designed to help irrigation districts set up a comprehensive approach to sharing and loaning water. The Central Oregon Irrigation District project was one of nine chosen in September by the Bureau of Reclamation, which provided a total of $2.1 million.
Kate Fitzpatrick, program director for the Deschutes River Conservancy, said the $400,000 grant, which will be matched by the district, would go toward a study that will provide ways to share water between districts legally and effectively, improving on a system that leaves some districts in the basin with a water surplus, and some with significant shortfalls.
“All of the districts are highly motivated to solve this,” Fitzpatrick said.
The eight irrigation districts operating in the Deschutes Basin provide water to approximately 150,000 acres of farms, ranches, cities and school districts in Central Oregon, but their water rights are not created equal. Fitzpatrick said COID, headquartered in Redmond, has senior water rights on the Deschutes system and has plenty of water. But more junior right-holders, including North Unit Irrigation District in Madras, are feeling the strain from farmers, municipalities and other water users.
Mike Britton, general manager for North Unit Irrigation District, said the district does fine during wet years, but during dry summers, especially over the last few years, the district has had to cap water for farmers, and draw Wickiup Reservoir down to record lows.
“It’s hard to recover from those types of draw-downs,” Britton said.
In 2014, the Oregon spotted frog was listed as threated under the federal Endangered Species Act, triggering protections for the species in some of Central Oregon’s bodies of water. Fitzpatrick said the species is found in Crane Prairie Reservoir, to the southwest of Bend, and along the Deschutes River between Wickiup Reservoir and Bend, and requires specific water needs. The district draws much of its water from Wickiup, but a recent legal settlement involving the species requires the districts to meet certain flow levels on the Upper Deschutes River.
Ultimately, this means there’s a significant gap between the supply of water and the demand for it. A 2013 study cited in the application predicts a shortage of 230,000 acre-feet of water by 2050.
Fitzpatrick said the Deschutes River Conservancy is collaborating with the irrigation districts and other stakeholders on a comprehensive study examining the future of the Deschutes Basin, which will include water sharing, piping along canals and other factors. However, the study will not be complete until May 2018.
In the meantime, Fitzpatrick said that providing a way for districts to share water could go a long way toward offsetting this shortfall. One aspect of the planning process involves finding cost-effective ways to move water from irrigation districts with senior rights to those with more junior rights. Shon Rae, who handles business development for COID, estimated that the district has around 135,000 acre-feet of marketable water available, from users with a surplus as well as correctable water loss from the existing system.
While Fitzpatrick said the irrigation districts have a long history of loaning water back and forth, state and federal water laws present barriers to doing so more regularly. The study funded by the Bureau of Reclamation grant could provide a framework for doing so more regularly.
Going forward, the districts will be planning ways to involve the public in the process near the start of 2018, working with residents and water-users to find better ways to distribute water between the various districts.
“We’re a unique basin,” Fitzpatrick said.
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