Downstream from Bend, the Deschutes River used to nearly run dry every summer. Most of the river’s water gets legally diverted by irrigation districts at Bend.
The flows in the Middle Deschutes have improved dramatically since the late 1990s. It’s up by at least 150 cubic feet per second due to restoration efforts of irrigation districts, the Deschutes River Conservancy and others. (A cubic foot of water is about 7.5 gallons.)
The goal is to do even better. It gets the river to a healthier state. There’s also the looming pressure of the Endangered Species Act. If populations of bull trout, steelhead or other threatened species are harmed, regulatory fury could be unleashed.
The seven local irrigation districts and the city of Prineville are arguably more vulnerable than others along the river to claims that their actions harm threatened species. They have smartly teamed up to better confront the challenge before it stings.
They are developing what’s called a habitat conservation plan. Piping and lining canals, restoring wetlands and improving irrigation systems can all keep more water in the river and create better habitat. If the plan is approved by federal agencies, the districts and the city would be able to continue what they do and perhaps harm or kill a threatened species but not face dramatic fines and sanctions.
It’s been expensive. It will continue to be expensive. More than $3 million has been spent in federal and local matching funds on developing the plan. It may cost $1 million to do the required environmental impact statement, according to a recent presentation to the Bend City Council.
But if the plan can protect the river, protect the animals in it, and continue to take the water needed for irrigation and drinking without running afoul of the Endangered Species Act, it’s better for everyone in the region.