Deschutes River Basin Study open houses

Sunriver: March 5, 1-3 p.m., Sunriver Homeowners Aquatic & Recreation Center, 57250 Overlook Road

Bend: March 5, 5:30-7:30 p.m., Bend Park & Recreation District Office, 799 SW Columbia St.

Madras: March 6, 5:30-7:30 p.m., The Inn at Cross Keys Station, 66 NW Cedar St.

After three years of planning, members of the public will have a chance to learn more about a $1.5 million study that could shape management of the upper Deschutes River Basin for the next 50 years.

Beginning March 5, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the basin study work group — a collection of 38 conservation groups, irrigation districts, Central Oregon city governments and other stakeholders — will be holding open houses in Sunriver, Bend and Madras. Mike Relf, project manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, said the two-hour open houses will provide an opportunity for residents to get an overview of the work that has gone into the Upper Deschutes Basin Study and ask questions. In addition, various organizations will host a series of stations with detailed breakdowns of different elements of the study, including water conservation, flow restoration and canal piping.

Relf said the study is designed to balance the needs of various municipalities, farmers who rely on irrigation water and fish and wildlife living in the basin.

“Those are really the three legs of the stool,” Relf said.

The study officially began in 2015 as a way to balance water needs for the irrigation districts operating in the basin and Central Oregon’s fast-growing cities, while making sure enough water remains in Central Oregon’s waterways to protect species such as the Oregon spotted frog.

In April 2015, the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, a collection of eight Central Oregon irrigation districts, and the Bureau of Reclamation finalized an agreement calling for the federal agency to pay $750,000 of the $1.5 million study.

The Oregon Water Resources Department contributed the other half, according to Kyle Gorman, region manager for the department.

Kate Fitzpatrick, program director with the nonprofit Deschutes River Conservancy, said these various needs have led to water shortfalls within the basin, which vary by year but may increase significantly over time. Fitzpatrick said the shortage could reach 290,000 acre-feet during dry years.

Irrigation districts with more junior water rights have to aggressively divert water or significantly draw down reservoirs in the region during dry years, leaving water levels in Central Oregon’s waterways dangerously low.

“The gap in supply and demand is already there, and it’s mainly on the instream flow side,” Fitzpatrick said.

Since a settlement regarding Oregon spotted frog mandates that water levels in parts of the Upper Deschutes can’t drop below certain thresholds, farmers in the area could be vulnerable during dry years.

“Farmers’ livelihoods … are at risk if we don’t figure out how to solve this collaboratively,” Fitzpatrick said.

She added that smaller-scale studies in the basin have focused on needs within the basin, but this one is designed to bring the stakeholders together to determine what strategies can be implemented to make sure there’s enough water to go around.

To that end, Fitzgerald said the study incorporated a tool used to digitally model river systems, to run several different water-management scenarios in the basin. She added that the study applied three different climate change scenarios to determine how the district will respond.

“One of the things that’s unique about the Deschutes is that there really is enough water to go around,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s not a true water scarcity situation.”

For the irrigation districts, the main focus is conserving water by piping open-air canals, transferring water between entities and helping farms become more efficient at using the water. Shon Rae, deputy managing director for Central Oregon Irrigation District, said between 40 and 60 percent of the water that travels through COID’s canals is lost to evaporation or seepage in the canals.

Adding that water back into the system could give the district more water that could be sold or transferred to entities with more dire water needs. While Rae said state and federal water laws present barriers to transferring water back and forth between districts, the irrigation districts in the Deschutes Basin have made it a priority.

Additionally, COID received a $400,000 grant last year from the Bureau of Reclamation, designed to help irrigation districts set up a comprehensive approach to sharing and loaning water.

Fitzpatrick said a draft of the study is expected to be finalized by July, and available to the public in September. In the meantime, the open houses are designed to make various aspects of the study comprehensible to the general public.

“It’s really complicated from a water-rights perspective,” Fitzpatrick said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818,