Balancing water for farms and fish is a constant challenge in the Upper Deschutes River, though a new agreement between irrigation districts and river advocates seeks to turn decades of competition into collaboration.
The Deschutes Basin Board of Control — comprising eight irrigation districts in Central Oregon — and nonprofit Coalition for the Deschutes have jointly developed and signed a memorandum that outlines a shared vision for the river, and calls upon irrigators to implement conservation practices such as piping otherwise leaky canals.
Five other groups have also signed on to the memo, including the Deschutes River Conservancy, Trout Unlimited Deschutes Redbands, Sunriver Anglers, Oregon Environmental Council and Wild River Owners Association.
Gail Snyder, founder and executive director of the Bend-based Coalition for the Deschutes, said the memo marks a beginning of real dialogue to help restore the river, while ensuring farmers get the water they need to keep irrigating crops.
“The Deschutes River is essential to all facets of our culture and economy,” Snyder said. “Farmers, recreationists, hunters and anglers, businesses, fish and wildlife, and the Central Oregon community all benefit from a healthy river and sustainable agriculture.”
A series of dams on the Upper Deschutes has dramatically impacted the river’s natural ecology, Snyder said, damaging fish and wildlife habitat. That has led to disputes between irrigation districts and environmental groups, including a contentious lawsuit over the Oregon spotted frog, which resulted in a settlement in 2016.
By having a shared vision for the river, Snyder said the two sides can become allies, rather than adversaries.
“The Shared Vision grew out of our work together, and it recognizes that the fastest way to restore flows to the Upper Deschutes River is for us to work together,” she said.
The Deschutes Basin Board of Control represents the Central Oregon, North Unit, Arnold, Lone Pine, Ochoco, Swalley, Tumalo and Three Sisters irrigation districts, collectively distributing water to more than 150,000 acres of farmland.
Mike Britton, board of control chairman and manager of the North Unit Irrigation District, said the districts are working toward modern, efficient irrigation systems that leave more water in streams and rivers for fish and habitat.
“Irrigation districts have been doing conservation projects for many years and we are committed to helping improve conditions for the Upper Deschutes,” Britton said in a statement.
Part of the effort includes piping open irrigation canals, which Snyder said lose up to 50 percent of water through seepage. The water savings would then be kept in-stream for fish.
So long as it is managed wisely, the groups say there is enough water to meet the needs of fish, farms and families.
“This is an exciting time in the Deschutes Basin,” said Craig Horrell, manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District. “We look forward to more organizations, businesses and individuals being part of this initiative to conserve water and restore the Deschutes River.”