Wickiup low water

A large area of thick mud is exposed at the bottom of a boat ramp near Gull Point Campground at Wickiup Reservoir on Sept. 4, 2020.

House Bill 3103 has hit a dam, and that could be bad for the Deschutes River.

The problem with the river is that it looks great as it moves through Bend. Upstream? Well, upstream flows can get so low that fish die and the Oregon spotted frog is struggling to hang on.

HB 3103 would create more flexibility in how stored water can be used. That flexibility of fluidity could help the river upstream.

Think about Wickiup Reservoir. All the water in that reservoir — as much as there is, at least — is officially designated for use by North Unit Irrigation District near Madras.

If the goal is to best use the system of water storage and water rights in the basin to best meet the water needs of the basin, limits on use like that can get in the way. Before you can remove those limits and move a drop, there are problems. There’s disagreement about how water should be used. Some people want more for fish and frogs. Some want to take water rights away from the people who own them.

HB 3103 is a baby step. The Oregon Department of Justice said that, with some exceptions, Oregon’s Water Resources Department doesn’t have the authority to change storage rights. HB 3103 would allow a change for the use of water. So if the desire was there, you could allow release of water from Wickiup to help improve flows in the Upper Deschutes to improve the health of the river.

Many groups have testified in favor of the bill, particularly as it has been slightly amended. Central Oregon LandWatch testified in favor of the original bill. WaterWatch of Oregon, Trout Unlimited and some cities in Oregon have supported the bill as amended.

The Oregon Farm Bureau, which represents some 6,700 families, opposes it.

To begin with, the Farm Bureau is skeptical that the Oregon Water Resources Department no longer has the authority to change storage rights. The Farm Bureau also wants other issues resolved, such as the ability to move the location of water storage and move a diversion point. The Farm Bureau’s worry is that those issues will continue to go unresolved if they are not linked to resolving change in the use of the water.

That is a legitimate concern. It’s simply easier to get agreement on changing use than it is on moving where water is stored or moving a diversion point. We’re going to oversimplify it: Environmental interests see the benefit in changing the use of water because it enables them to achieve environmental goals — more water for fish and frogs. Changing where water is stored or moving a diversion point can be seen as reinforcing the status quo of Oregon’s water system, which environmental groups are not so interested in.

Does House Bill 3103 achieve everything it could or everything it should? No. The priority for the Oregon Legislature, though, should be to improve the state’s water system. HB 3103 does that for the Deschutes River and other places, including the Willamette River. Waiting around for perfect agreement on the perfect bill will do nobody any good. Pass HB 3103.

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