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WaterWatch puts irrigation districts on notice over frog deaths

WaterWatch of Oregon says that agencies responsible for management of the Crane Prairie, Wickiup, and Crescent Lake dams and reservoirs are causing harm to the threatened Oregon spotted frog. And if they don't take action to comply with federal law, the conservation organization intends to sue.

The 60-day notice filed by WaterWatch on August 12 specifically names the Central Oregon Irrigation District, Tumalo Irrigation District, and North Unit Irrigation District as well as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), claiming that their operation and maintenance of those dams isn't leaving sufficient, consistent flows in the Deschutes, resulting in an illegal "take" of the vulnerable species.

Specifically, the notice says that the irrigation districts and the BOR are not consulting with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, as mandated by the Endangered Species Act, to ensure that they aren't doing anything to jeopardize the frog's continued existence.

"They need to go through this scientific and legal process to determine the flows that are needed to prevent harm to frogs; they need to figure out what to do to stop killing frogs," says WaterWatch Communications Director Jim McCarthy. "In our view, those flows that are needed are going to benefit a whole host of species."

But the irrigation districts and the BOR say they are working with a range of stakeholders, including WaterWatch and USFW, to protect the Oregon spotted frog.

"WaterWatch is part of the [Deschutes] basin study workgroup. It was surprising that they filed the notice when they've been sitting with us at the table," says COID District Manager Craig Horrell. "We have been working with the agencies on science and biology."

At the Tumalo Irrigation District, Manager Kenneth Rieck says he was likewise surprised and disappointed by the notice.

"We're working really hard and we're spending a lot of effort and capital on a habitat conservation plan," he says. "It won't be complete for about two years. Almost a year ago we started voluntary releases of water to protect the frog."

The Bureau of Reclamation declined to comment due to pending litigation, but Bend Field Office Manager Doug DeFlitch tells the Source that efforts to protect the frogs are in the works.

"Reclamation, the irrigation districts, and a couple other stakeholders and USFW have been working on a comprehensive conservation plan," DeFlitch says. "Our hope is to put together good information about what we are doing so everyone is well informed."

But WaterWatch says the answer is relatively simple: maintain consistent flows in the Deschutes sufficient to support the Oregon spotted frog and stop treating the river like an irrigation ditch.

According to the filing, the way the dams are currently managed, water levels fluctuate throughout the season according to the needs of irrigators. This approach, the group argues, changes the natural system by creating unnaturally high flows in the summer when water is pushed out to irrigators, followed by dangerously low flows in October when the districts begin to refill their reservoirs.

"During the fall and winter, operation for refilling the reservoirs causes streams to drop far below levels needed for fish and wildlife," the notice says. Citing figures from USFW, it goes on to explain, "In the Upper Deschutes River sub-basin, winter flow levels below Wickiup Dam range from about 20-30 cfs, far below the 300 cfs instream water right that was adopted to protect minimum flows for fish and even further below natural flows or the minimum 700 cfs potentially needed to sustain the Oregon spotted frog."

By comparison, the notice claims, summer flows reach highs of about 1,400 cfs. The stark contrast, WaterWatch says, harms the frogs by stranding, freezing, or washing away the frogs and their eggs. Before the Wickiup Dam was constructed, according to USFW, Deschutes River flows below the dam's current site remained fairly constant, fluctuating between 730 cfs and 660 cfs.

"The wildly fluctuating flows further harm critical wildlife habitat by exacerbating erosion and channel incision," the notice continues. "The annual exposure and reflooding of the river also releases more pollutants and sediment into the river."

But not everyone seems convinced that the frogs are suffering as a result of low flows.

"I think the frogs have adapted well to the management, one of the best populations in the world of frogs is in the reservoirs around here," TID's Rieck explains. "We don't run into stranding problems and things like that."

And even those who acknowledge that the threatened species is being impacted by low water levels don't necessarily believe the blame lies with irrigation districts.

"This drought could have affected the frogs as much as any operation," says COID's Horrell. "It's unfair for them to say it's all dam operations when they're looking at the driest year on record."

However, listing documents from USFW make clear the relationship between human manipulation of flows and the degradation or loss of frog habitat. "Threats to the species' habitat include changes in hydrology due to construction of dams and human-related alterations to seasonal flooding," the USFW final rule on the threatened status of the Oregon spotted frog states. "In the Upper Deschutes River sub-basin in Oregon, regulated water releases from Crane Prairie and Wickiup Reservoirs result in extreme seasonal fluctuations in stream flows that have affected the amount of overwintering and breeding habitat available for Oregon spotted frogs."

The North Unit Irrigation District will host a public meeting to discuss the WaterWatch filing Wednesday, August 26 at 5:30 pm at the Madras Performing Arts Center.

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