The Oregon spotted frog, steelhead trout, bull trout and other fish species that inhabit the Deschutes River and other local waterways could benefit from a proposed 30-year water conservation plan that seeks to balance the needs of farmers and wildlife, along with other water users in Central Oregon.

The Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan, a sweeping program that will guide water use in the region for decades to come, is undergoing a public comment period set to expire Nov. 18. After that date, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service will review the comments and evaluate potential changes to the plan.

The main threat faced by Oregon spotted frogs in the region is the inconsistent and unnatural water flow on the Deschutes River, caused by the use of canals and dams. The fish species were listed due a variety of threats, including hydropower dams, habitat loss, hatcheries and fish harvesting.

The conservation plan will set new flow targets in the Deschutes and its tributaries to address effects on the species. According to the plan, irrigation districts in Central Oregon plan to conserve water through the use of piping projects so that more water can stay in the Deschutes River to benefit the aquatic species. Around half the water that flows into the canals is lost to evaporation and seepage.

The Habitat Conservation Plan, described in a 870-page document, is being developed by the city of Prineville and the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, which includes representatives from eight irrigation districts.

“The eight districts and Prineville are the applicants. They developed the HCP, which they sent to us for approval. Once we approve that plan, they get the permit to continue to operate, but in a new way that doesn’t harm the species as it has in the past,” Bridget Moran, field supervisor for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said.

If the plan is approved by federal regulators, the districts will receive permits that will allow them to continue to deliver water without the threat of lawsuits or penalties, as long as they are in compliance with the plan. The applicants are asking that the permits cover their activities for 30 years.

The permits are issued under a section of the Endangered Species Act to non-federal, private entities that are undertaking otherwise lawful projects that could result in the harm of an endangered or threatened species.

The Fish and Wildlife Service and the Deschutes Basin Board of Control will work together to complete the plan in a collaborative effort.

“The idea is that we bring the expertise of what the species needs and they bring the expertise of their water management. We have to make sure the conservation they are providing addresses the effects they are causing. That is where the tension lies — is it good enough or is it not good enough?” Moran said.

The plan requires more water to be released into the Deschutes from Wickiup Reservoir in winter to improve spotted frog habitats. Because more water will be released in winter, that would mean lower reservoir levels in spring, when irrigators require water.

The plan would have lower amounts of water released from Wickiup for the North Unit Irrigation District. In exchange, NUID will take water currently used by Central Oregon Irrigation District in Deschutes County.

To make the transfer work, some COID canals will be piped and irrigation systems will be upgraded for maximum efficiency. Farm conservation programs will also save water for the districts. Expected costs for the piping project could reach $240 million spread over several years.

“We believe this is a great start and foundation to fixing the river,” said Craig Horrell, district manager for COID. “The HCP is a very specific set of guidelines that we are following. And we have the Deschutes Basin Water Collaborative that is about moving forward outside of the HCP for the entire Deschutes River Basin.”

The amount of water flowing out of Wickiup in the winter months is 100 cubic feet per second. That number jumps to 1,800 cubic feet in summer, when the irrigators need water the most. During the past 70 years since the construction of Wickiup Reservoir, that large fluctuation in streamflow has widened the Deschutes channel, eroding the banks of the river and degrading wildlife habitats. Changes to the water distribution system will close that gap.

There are four alternative options being considered under the conservation plan. Under the most aggressive plan, Alternative 4, the winter release would reach at least 400 cubic feet per second in six to 10 years. The least aggressive plan would have 200 cubic feet per second released in that time period. There is also an option for “no action.”

But Alternative 4 is neither practical or economically viable, according to Horrell, because it would require more stored water released in the river before the completion of conservation projects. This would prevent effectively prevent Wickiup from filling up by spring, resulting in a shortage for irrigators.

“Alternative 4 would put North Unit out of business,” said Horrell. “We had to create scenarios on both ends of the spectrum and we will fall somewhere in between.”

The HCP is something of a compromise to allow the farmers and the wildlife to share the water.

“If you didn’t have an HCP, you would more than likely have to give up your water to protect the species, and give up your operations. So this is allowing us to continue operating in a different way,” Horrell said.

But not everyone is on board with the plan.

Tod Heisler, director of the Rivers Program for the environmental group Central Oregon LandWatch, said the plan does not do enough to address the needs of the threatened species.

“What you have is a plan that marginally improves a habitat that is already in a degraded condition,” said Heisler.

Heisler agrees that modernization of the canals must occur, but believes costs are too high and may soar higher than projected. In addition to upgrading the infrastructure, Heisler would like to see the irrigation districts work on a marketing plan to more effectively share the water each is alloted.

Water marketing can take many forms, but its purpose is to provide an incentive for a water right holder to change his or her water use. This could include selling a water right or paying a water user to use less water.

“I am not suggesting we only do marketing, but the potential is huge at a fraction of the cost,” Heisler said. “Piping the canals does nothing to reform the inefficient behavior of those water users with senior water rights. Water use in those districts is like opening up a hose on the lawn and leaving it on all summer.”

A final Environmental Impact Statement and Habitat Conservation Plan is expected to be published in April 2020, with a final decision expected May 10, 2020. Robyn Thorson, Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Region, is expected to sign the final agreement if it meets the legal standards.

Comments on the plan can be made online through the website: www.regulations.gov.

Follow the instructions for submitting comments on Docket No. FWS-R1-ES-2019-0091.

“The plan itself is a great body of work and very robust,” said Kyle Gorman, region manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department. “There are questions about how it will be implemented, and we’ll learn things once the districts and Prineville have a chance to complete some projects that will meet the goals as described.”

Reporter: 541-617-7818, mkohn@bendbulletin.com

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