By Betty Roppe and Brian Barney
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Central Oregon’s current drought conditions, coupled with a lower-than-average snowpack forecast this winter, has understandably fueled concerns for those of us who value the rivers and streams of the Deschutes Basin.
In Prineville and Crook County, our lifeblood water is the Crooked River. It is part of our lives, flowing past our city, homes, farms and ranches. It’s vital in so many ways — from recreation and irrigation to our quality of life.
Therefore, it is our collective duty to balance the region’s usage needs with the needs of a healthy river.
While multiagency collaboration and irrigation efficiency upgrades may not grab newspaper headlines, the reality is that numerous local governments, irrigation districts and state and federal agencies are proactively investing in and moving forward on Crooked River conservation projects to improve streamflow and restore river habitat.
For example, Central Oregon’s eight irrigation districts and the City of Prineville are working together on the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan, an unprecedented, collaborative effort to improve fish and wildlife habitat in the Deschutes Basin. The HCP will enable the districts and city to continue to supply water for irrigation and municipal purposes throughout Central Oregon.
Other proactive conservation efforts these groups have recently undertaken include:
• Crooked River Wetland Complex, in which more than two miles of riparian improvements to the Crooked River have been implemented, as well as the construction of over 120 acres of wetlands, benefiting many species of fish and wildlife while lowering river temperatures.
• Protective fish screens to prevent small fish from entering irrigation canals, enabling them to move downstream safely. In addition, installation of fish ladders have helped strengthen fish populations by allowing them to once again migrate freely.
• Modernization of aging irrigation infrastructure to conserve water, and improve streamflow.
• Replacement of leaky main water pipes, installation of new meters and advance urban management saves more than 130 million gallons of water annually for the City of Prineville.
What’s more, the Crooked River Collaborative Water Security and Jobs Act of 2014 accelerates fish and wildlife habitat improvements to the Crooked River, including the reintroduction of steelhead and higher streamflows.
The 2014 Act allocates nearly half of the total stored water in the Prineville Reservoir to fish and wildlife resources, nearly 60,000-acre-feet. And, thanks to the leadership of Sen. Jeff Merkley, Rep. Greg Walden and former Gov. John Kitzhaber, those water supplies are intended to benefit fish and wildlife downstream without harming existing water rights holders on the Crooked River.
This effort was the culmination of more than 30 years worth of collaborative work by the Ochoco and North Unity irrigation districts, city of Prineville, Crook County, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and many other conservation groups.
Because of these initiatives, habitat conditions for fish and wildlife, including the Oregon spotted frog, steelhead and others, are improving throughout the Deschutes Basin.
Today, there is a little over 20 cubic feet of water per second flowing into Prineville Reservoir and over 50 cfs flowing out of Bowman Dam. It is important to note: July through Oct. 9, there was zero inflow with over 240 cfs released for the fish, farming, recreation and the city’s municipal and industrial water for the benefit of fisheries. Farmers faced water cutbacks all summer.
While we are steadfast in our commitment to conservation efforts on the Crooked River, we can’t change the weather. Given the drought conditions in the Deschutes Basin, flows into the reservoir are no doubt cause for concern. Fortunately, state and federal agencies like the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are closely involved with decisions about the amount of water to be released for fish and wildlife purposes.
So, while Mother Nature may not be doing her part to solve the water challenges we face, your elected officials and state and federal agencies most certainly are.
— Betty Roppe is the mayor of Prineville. Brian Barney is a Crook County Commissioner.