Its no secret that irrigation withdrawals have a major impact on stream flows in the Deschutes Basin. From Wickiup Reservoir in the pine forested Cascade foothills south of Bend to the Juniper dotted canyons outside Terrebonne, the rise and fall of the river is dictated less by snow and rain than the opening and closing of steel gates that meter out water to the legions of farmers on the High Desert.
Over the past decade, irrigators, conservation groups, cities and other stakeholders have made major strides in restoring some of the diminished flows. This past summer, flows in the middle Deschutes were as much as four times the summer average recorded for much of the 20th century when water-thirsty crops and inefficient irrigation methods left little for the river. Much of that restored flow has come as the result of piping projects that allow irrigators to leave some of their conserved water in the river without curtailing their own usage.
To date, much of the progress that's been made has centered on the Deschutes where willing partners including Tumalo Irrigation District, Arnold Irrigation District and Central Oregon Irrigation District have embarked on ambitious conservation projects. Irrigators in the Crooked River Basin have been slower to take up the challenge for a number of reasons. But that's changing. As of this week, work has started on the state's most ambitious water conservation project to date, one that could boost stream flows as much as tenfold in the lower Crooked River near Smith Rock State Park.
The project, which broke ground Monday, represents an estimated $16-20 million investment in the Crooked River. The project, which is funded by a mix of state and federal dollars as well as money from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the electric utility PGE, represents an unprecedented investment in the basin and has the potential to be the largest single flow-restoration project in the state.
"Central Oregon Irrigation District and North Unit are working on the project together. They are the two largest districts in Central Oregon and two of the biggest in the state, and as far as DRC is concerned, getting those two to work together is the key to resolving water management issue in the Deschutes and this is a really good example," said Scott McCaulou, program director at the Bend-based Deschutes River Conservancy which helped to broker the deal.
The project involves a multiparty conservation deal and will, when finished, effectively end North Unit's practice of pumping irrigation water directly from the Crooked River where the withdrawal has an immediate impact on stream flows in the lower stretch of the river near Smith Rock. It's the same stretch that has been targeted by biologists as prime habitat for migrating Chinook and steelhead that could soon be returning to the Crooked River as part of a massive migratory fish reintroduction effort that is tied to the re-licensing of Pelton Dam, a power producing structure that wiped out once-prolific runs of steelhead, Chinook and sockeye salmon in the upper Deschutes basin which includes the Crooked River.
While many issues remain to be resolved around the return of salmon and steelhead to the Crooked River system, including the lack of fish passage at the Opal Springs dam on the lower Crooked River, the water restoration deal marks a significant step forward for river and fish advocates without harming irrigation interests. McCaulou said the project will be completed in three phases, the details of which have yet to be worked out, and is likely to take four to six years, depending on funding availability.