Not enough and not soon enough. Those are the complaints that critics level against the irrigation districts in the Deschutes Basin and the work they are doing to improve flows in the Deschutes River.
The complaints will surely come again now that the eight irrigation districts and the city of Prineville have released a new summary of their conservation goals. Rather than beat them up for what they haven’t done, look at what they have done.
Flows in the upper section of the Deschutes River — below Wickiup Reservoir and before Bend — have in recent decades varied dramatically, particularly in the winter. Until recently, it wasn’t unusual for the river to flow at 20.8 cubic feet per second. One way to understand that rate of flow is it takes just over 24 cubic feet per second to fill up an Olympic-sized pool in an hour.
One of the biggest problems with low flows is it makes it hard for wildlife to survive. The Deschutes River Conservancy, the environmental group, has said its goal is 300 cubic feet per second in the winter for that stretch of the river. The irrigation districts agreed in 2016 that the flows would be 100 cfs at all times. That’s progress. That was increased to 175 cfs from late November 2017 through mid-March 2018. And it will be increased to 600 cfs by the next few days. That’s more progress.
Increasing winter flows can get complicated. Increasing those flows could make it harder to supply farmers with the irrigation water that they need in the summer. And the farmers in Jefferson County are some of the most vulnerable. They have been some of the best at conserving water but have junior water rights. So if there isn’t enough water, they are at the front of the line to lose.
There are many other complications. Piping irrigation canals to conserve water is expensive. The costs vary, but the project cost of the 3,000 feet of pipeline for the Central Oregon Irrigation District project near Brookswood Boulevard in Bend was $5 million. Piping can be controversial for neighbors who would rather gaze out on an open canal. Finding the right state mechanism to protect water through conservation or marketing remains a challenge. And there’s much more.
The progress by the irrigation districts doesn’t mean that the flows will always be hitting the 300 cfs goal every winter. But the progress is nothing to frown at.