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River Talk 

A three-year-long study of the Upper Deschutes is nearing completion. Here's what two local river advocates think so far

Surface water, such as this flowing over Dillon Falls, is just one aspect of an impending river study. - U.S. FOREST SERVICE / FLICKR
  • U.S. Forest Service / Flickr
  • Surface water, such as this flowing over Dillon Falls, is just one aspect of an impending river study.

Like a Central Oregonian impatiently waiting to go for a swim on a hot high desert day, Natasha Bellis and Gail Snyder jumped right into the hyped Upper Deschutes River Basin Study. After rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands wet, Bellis, program manager for the Deschutes River Conservancy and Snyder, co-founder and executive director of Coalition for the Deschutes, are eager to splash readers with the finer points of the study. We sat down with them to discuss.

Source Weekly: What is the Basin Study and why is it a hot topic all of a sudden?

Natasha Bellis: The Deschutes River Conservancy, together with over 30 basin stakeholders and several funders, are just completing the Upper Deschutes River Basin Study, a three-year planning study focused on meeting water needs for rivers, irrigated agriculture and growing communities in the Deschutes Basin over the next 50 years. The Study began in 2015 and will formally conclude this September.

Gail Snyder: The Basin Study steering committee wanted to bring the information that has been gathered out into our community. We have the chance to restore the Deschutes River, maintain farming in Central Oregon and provide water for our cities. To do that, we need participation by all parties and support from the community. The Basin Study is to be commended for being inclusive and taking a big-tent approach.

SW: Why is the Deschutes River Basin Study important to Central Oregonians?

NB: The rivers and creeks that make up the Upper Deschutes Basin are the lifeblood of Central Oregon communities. They provide residents clean drinking water, habitat for fish and other aquatic species, irrigation water for crops and recreational opportunities that support our growing tourism industry.

Surface water in the Upper Deschutes River basin is over-allocated in many months, meaning that there are more rights to use water than actual water supply. And with most water in this basin allocated to agriculture, other water needs have suffered, particularly the river where many streams experience altered stream flows that result in either not enough water or too much water to support viable aquatic species and diverse habitat.

It is important for water managers to understand how to meet these needs better now and in the future, particularly in the face of growing demands and a changing climate.

Water is essential to life. It needs to be shared equitably if fish, farms, and families are going to have enough water in the right place at the right time in order to survive. The Basin Study has laid out where the problems are today and the tools available to us to solve these problems.

GS: Water is essential to life. It needs to be shared equitably if fish, farms and families are going to have enough water in the right place at the right time in order to survive. The Basin Study has laid out where the problems are today and the tools available to us to solve these problems.

SW: Recently there was litigation over Deschutes River flow levels on behalf of the Oregon Spotted Frog. What other species could be at risk in the basin if measures aren't taken to protect flows?

NB: Current water management in the Upper Deschutes affects other species, most notably native redband trout. Although not an aquatic species, farmers' livelihoods in the Culver and Madras area are at risk if measures aren't taken to protect flow in the Upper Deschutes.

GS: Personally, I think a better way to approach this is from a community-wide perspective, recognizing that no species, including humans, functions in isolation from any other. Ecosystems are complex and interwoven. If we restore more natural flows to our rivers, frogs, fish, birds, bugs... everything will do better.

SW: Why is it important for river conservationists to work peacefully with the irrigation districts, even though it might seem, at first glance, their interests are at odds?

NB: Surface water in the Upper Deschutes River basin is fully allocated, primarily for irrigation use. Under current water law, this is perfectly legal. Irrigation districts have a right to use the water and although our legal system allows for irrigation districts to transfer water use from an irrigation to instream purpose, it does not compel it. Working collaboratively with irrigation districts is essential to addressing water use and management imbalances in the Upper Deschutes Basin. At the DRC, we work to restore streamflow for fish and wildlife but not at the expense of our agricultural communities. We work with all interested stakeholders to identify creative solutions to provide a balance between all water uses.    

GS: We are in a transformational period in this watershed. Getting to success requires moving beyond blame. It requires coordination between all parties, including the districts, river advocates and cities. It requires cultural change all around. That's not simple, but it is necessary. We have irrigation districts in Central Oregon who are forward-looking and solution-oriented and working incredibly hard to help restore our rivers by conserving water in their irrigation operations.

SW: What is the outcome your organization is looking for in supporting the Basin Study?

NB: A shared understanding of the options available to move water between uses and users in a way that secures and maintains a) streamflows and water quality for fish and wildlife, b) a reliable and affordable supply of water to sustain agriculture, and c) affordable and high-quality water supply for growing urban communities.

GS: The Basin Study has shone a light on present conditions and illuminated possible paths for going forward. It doesn't prescribe next steps. It's our community's privilege to participate in determining what our collective future looks like. Decisions will be made, and if we as a community want to have a say in that process, we need to be at the table.

For more information on the Upper Deschutes River Basin Study, see: usbr.gov/pn/studies/deschutes/deschutesfs.pdf

Deschutes River Conservancy

deschutesriver.org

Coalition for the Deschutes

coalitionforthedeschutes.org


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