The Deschutes River is such a beauty it can be easy to forget it has serious problems. A leading one is that water in the river basin is not in the right place at the right time for people, farming and wildlife.
That problem became more acute when the Oregon spotted frog was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2014. There has already been one lawsuit over the frog. If the frog is not protected, lawsuits will drive the solutions. While that may be good for the frog, it will almost certainly have damaging repercussions throughout the basin.
Farmers in Jefferson County are particularly vulnerable. They could no longer have a reliable water source to farm. The farmers of the North Unit Irrigation District have been the leaders in the basin in implementing innovative irrigation practices to conserve water. But that doesn’t matter. They generally hold the most junior water rights. They would be among the first in line to lose.
Meeting the water supply needs of the basin doesn’t have to come to that. The U.S. Reclamation Bureau and the state Water Resources Department have committed some $1.5 million to identify solutions.
The study doesn’t set out to pick solutions. It aims to identify options, evaluate their effectiveness and cost. The options are basically piping, enabling leasing and selling of water rights and creating flexibility in storage.
The goal in most years is to cover a shortfall of water that is not where it needs to be of about 130,000 acre feet. Dry years can be triple that. An acre foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre in a foot of water. It’s about 326,000 gallons.
Piping, leasing and selling can deliver that 130,000 acre feet and more. Piping helps make the leasing and selling easier. It comes with a higher price tag — the average for piping is about $5,000 per acre foot. Leasing and selling average about $400 per acre foot. Storage changes help facilitate more flexibility in the system.
Crunch some numbers and the costs would be millions upon millions. Where would it come from? That is unanswered.
If you want to be involved in the solution or a solution that isn’t dictated in the courts, check out the preliminary findings of the study’s working group. It will be holding open houses in Bend, Sunriver and Madras next week. More information is available by doing a web search for the Upper Deschutes Basin Study or check out the Deschutes River Conservancy’s website event page.