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A Community Vision for Restored Rivers

Health of local rivers are in decline

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Water is never more top of mind than when we have too much or too little. Here in the arid high desert of Central Oregon, it is often the case that we have too little. It is difficult to stay hopeful as climate change reduces snowpack, as droughts become the new normal, as farmers watch significant portions of their livelihoods literally dry up, and as voices clash over endangered species. All the while, the health of local rivers are in decline.

The Middle Deschutes below Steelhead Falls. - ARIAN STEVENS
  • Arian Stevens
  • The Middle Deschutes below Steelhead Falls.

In the early 1990s, clashes around natural resources led to intense environmental battles and uncertainty about the path forward. To get ahead of potential conflict over water in the Deschutes Basin, representatives from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Environmental Defense Fund, regional irrigation districts and local attorneys created the Deschutes River Conservancy to collaborate and create community around solutions for the river. In 1996, the DRC was created by an act of U. S. Congress, supported by Oregon U.S. Sens. Hatfield and Wyden.

For 25 years, the DRC has brought people together to implement technical and collaborative solutions for complex water issues while supporting agricultural needs. Our mission is to restore streamflow and improve water quality in the Deschutes Basin.  

When the DRC first started its work, there was abundant opportunity for consensus-based projects that put water back instream quickly and efficiently. Without this legacy of relationship building and cooperation, our basin would not be in the place it is today.

Imagine Whychus Creek turning into a dry creek bed in the summer. Imagine the Middle Deschutes (North of Bend) running at less than 5% of its natural flows during irrigation season and Tumalo Creek running dry. And finally, imagine the magnificent Smith Rocks with only a warm rivulet of water flowing past.

Through our partnerships, we have succeeded in restoring significant flows in each of these reaches. Whychus Creek, for example, has gone from simply drying up in late summer to becoming a revitalized year-round stream and a jewel of the community of Sisters. Today the creek provides habitat for migrating salmon and steelhead as well as opportunities for local students to interactively learn about stream ecology and art.

To restore stream flows, we have used a combination of innovative restoration tools. These include piping canals, transferring and leasing water rights for instream flow, and creating opportunities for sharing water resources between districts. These programs are all voluntary and done in partnership with irrigation districts and water users.

Restoring the Upper Deschutes and other impacted reaches is as complex as our previous endeavors, but our track record shows that long-term success is possible. We are drawing upon our history of collaboration with our partners to scale up and accelerate the restoration of the natural function of our rivers and streams. This will not be quick and easy, but we need to do the work as fast as we can. We must. While we are learning to stay close to home, we are deepening our gratitude for the natural beauty surrounding us. Our vision of the future is that we are all more efficient with this precious resource. We see communities having secure water for families and businesses. We look forward to seeing the Deschutes River and its tributaries restored to sustainable flows for generations to come. If we work together, we can make this vision a reality.

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