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Deschutes River Settlement: An Uneasy Truce

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In terms of water, it's going to be a good year. Just look outside.

According to the U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Service, all basins in Oregon have normal to above-normal snowpack, with the Deschutes and Crooked River basin at 126 percent of the median.

"That was not the case last year, when we observed rapid, record-breaking snowpack melt-out and runoff,"remarked Scott Oviatt, National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) snow survey supervisory hydrologist on Jan. 9. 

This year, the parties involved in the Spotted Frog lawsuit have settled the suit aimed at restoring a steady flow to the Deschutes River, thereby ensuring at least 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) of minimum flow year-round. It looks like the spring and summer will be rosy; farmers will have water for irrigation and native species will have a fighting chance of survival. In short, there seems to be an uneasy truce between the irrigation districts, the farmers and environmentalists target a year when there's the promise of abundant moisture gracing our dry high desert, it's easier to settle into that truce—but it's not going to last. One thing that's sure to come up: the timeline necessary for restoring the health of the river beyond the 100cfs mandated by the settlement.

The current Basin Study underway in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation—a $1.5 million study aimed at providing a road map for the water needs of all—is set to be complete late this year. Until that's done, the local irrigation districts are biding their time. Environmentalists, meanwhile, say the clock is ticking.

What's interesting—and what seems to have changed recently—is that some local environmental groups now seem resigned to the notion that piping our irrigation channels is necessary. Piping is intended to keep water from "leaking" out, and to increase water pressure to make delivering water more efficient. That's not without its drawbacks and aesthetic challenges, but by and large, it seems to be a tentative way forward.

Beyond the current agreement, all the parties will need to compromise.While it's too soon to know the results of the Basin Study—and the irrigation districts won't say so yet—farmers will need to reduce on-farm water waste. The irrigation districts will need to convince the public that the huge price tag for piping is worth paying for, and convince us that piping will ultimately mean more water left in the river, beyond the 100cfs. And while removing dams may be the ultimate goal for environmentalists, the fact that yet another power producer continues to seek license for another hydroelectric power plant at Wickiup Dam belies the fact that removing dams on the Deschutes is going to be a long, uphill and perhaps fruitless endeavor.

Readers often ask what they can do to understand this complicated issue. Educate yourself as much as possible about the need for a healthy river. Go to the info sessions offered by the Coalition for the Deschutes and others. Talk to a farmer about water. Conserve water where you can, even amid abundant snowpack. And keep an open mind when it comes time to pay for piping. If it ultimately means more water left in the Deschutes—and we hope the irrigation districts will be willing to follow through on that—then it's going to be good for us all.

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