A decision on whether or not to approve the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan, which seeks to establish flow rates for the Deschutes River for the next three decades, is on track to be made by the end of this year.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is currently reviewing the plan, could publish the final version of the conservation plan and the final environmental impact statement by November, according to Bridget Moran, the service’s field supervisor in Bend. That would lead to a final permit decision by year’s end.
Permit approval would allow irrigators in Central Oregon to continue to channel water away from the Deschutes River without the threat of litigation, as long as they follow the conditions in the final plan. The conservation plan was submitted by eight irrigation districts in Central Oregon and the city of Prineville.
“We are making very good progress on completing the final elements of the HCP,” said Moran. “In addition, we are making our way through the cultural resources review and assessment process, which is a required step for permit issuance.”
The irrigation districts have been siphoning water from the Deschutes for over a century to provide water to farms and ranches across Central Oregon.
Environmental organizations and agencies argue that the way the water is managed threatens the existence of fish and wildlife by depriving them of the natural flow of water upon which they depend. Species under continued pressure include the Oregon spotted frog, bull trout, sockeye salmon and steelhead.
The possibility of a lawsuit is pervasive if wildlife numbers continue to decline. Operating under an Incidental Take Permit, however, will protect the irrigation districts from legal action for at least 30 years.
In exchange for the permission to operate without the threat of a lawsuit, the irrigation districts will steadily increase the flow of water in the Deschutes River in winter by investing in water conservation measures, primarily the piping of open canals.
In addition, the irrigation districts will fund conservation projects, additional water leasing programs and monitoring programs conducted by biologists. Monitoring results will be available in a publicly available annual report.
The flow of water in the Deschutes is determined by water released out of Wickiup Reservoir. Water is held back in winter months to conserve water for summertime use by farmers irrigating their crops.
The amount of water released from the reservoir in winter is currently 105 cubic feet per second. The most aggressive plan being considered in the conservation plan sees 400 cfs released within six to 10 years. The least aggressive plan would have 200 cfs released in that time period.