Central Oregon is facing one of the most severe droughts on record, and people are rightly worried about water as climate change, population growth and the loss of wildlife habitat stress the already-delicate balance of water use in the high desert. Municipal water accounts for about 2% of overall water rights in the Deschutes Basin — irrigation districts are 86% and instream 12% of rights in the basin — but cities are still working to encourage water conservation.
Bend added about 25,000 people between 2010 and 2020 without increasing the amount of water use, according to Bend’s Water Conservation Program Manager Dan Denning. There are several reasons for that, he says, like fully metering every drop of water a building uses, mandating irrigation only happen every other night and educating people on best practices for water use.
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"When a drought declaration comes from the Governor, I would say we heighten our messages as a conservation program," Denning said. "That's basically saying, 'OK, it's irrigation season again. Here's the status of the basin. We're in an extreme drought again; we're expecting that declaration to come soon. Here's what we're asking of our customers."
The conservation department asks a bit more from customers during drought years. It requests customers prioritize plants to water, consider delaying planting something new and to make sure irrigation systems are running as planned. The City of Bend will help people out with some of this, like with a free sprinkler inspection program that opens up in June, automized leak notifications and putting people in touch with resources.
"If we get a code violation, we go out and try to work with the customer to help put them in touch with a contractor or the right resources to remedy the problem," Denning said. "We tried to avoid leading with a stick, because fining someone who can't get a contractor there in time to make the repair doesn't really help them."
Water use varies seasonally, with most of municipal water being used in the summer for outdoor uses like gardening and landscaping. Redmond's Water Utilities Manager Josh Wedding has the ambitious goal to cut summer water use by 50%.
"Through the winter, late fall and early spring, this town thrives on an average daily demand of about 2.6 to 2.7 million gallons a day. We run breweries, grocery stores, businesses, houses, and everything just works really smooth," said Wedding. "Then we go into the irrigation season, and the demand for town jumps dramatically. Last year we saw demands close to 16 million gallons a day. That's roughly six times the amount."
Cutting peak water use to 8 million gallons is a big task and starts with some easy fixes like getting water-efficient fixtures into homes—but the real obstacle is outdoor use. Wedding said he wants to reduce what he calls nonfunctional green space—that is, grassy areas that exist only for aesthetic purposes, like road medians and the area between sidewalks and streets. For individuals, Redmond can advocate that customers redesign yards for more efficient water use, but Wedding believes incentivizing it in development codes could provide more immediate relief.
"If a developer comes in and says, 'Hey, I would love to build a new subdivision,' I'd say, 'OK, fine, we'll allow you to build this new subdivision, but we want you to limit your irrigable space by 50%,'" Wedding says. "Encouraging more xeriscaping at a development level, and less greenspace at a development level, then right off the bat we get water savings without a lot of effort."
As the population grows and Central Oregon must stretch its water further, it's growing to resemble Southwestern cities that have been dealing with water shortages for 50 years. Tucson, Arizona's 2018-2019 conservation report found that the city used the same amount of water as it did in 1985, despite its population rising by over 30%.
In the mid-1970s Tucson struggled to pump enough groundwater to meet peak summer demand. Since then, it's implemented the things Central Oregon is either exploring or recently introduced. Xeriscaping is mandated in all new developments per Tucson's code. Rebate programs reimburse customers for upgrading water systems. And reclaimed wastewater makes up about 10% of the city's total water use.
But Bend is not Tucson, and there are a few ways the two cities differ in approach. Tucson bills customers on a tiered basis, hiking prices for the heaviest users. Its rebates extend to rainwater capture, which is less feasible in Central Oregon where heavy snowstorms can strip gutter systems off buildings, according to Wedding.
But as Central Oregon expands, it could more closely fall in line with Tucson, with more xeriscaped lawns, weather-adjusted irrigation systems and maybe an occasional rainwater collection system. Until then, the sky isn't falling. The 2020 Integrated Water Systems Master Plan, a document that detailed steps Bend must take to maintain reliable drinking water, found that if Central Oregon continues its trend of conserving more water, then there will be enough supply even with growth, though it doesn't account for short-term variables.
"Like a drought," Denning said as an example of those short-term variables. "Within that 20 years, you still may have an event that causes you to have a curtailment event, or we might ask the residents or the community to say, we need you to reduce water use by 10-20% this summer, or we may say only outdoor watering three days a week."
Local irrigation districts are also striving to conserve more water as low reservoir levels have led to some of the district's shortest irrigation seasons in recent memory. All eight districts are piping some of the open canals and lining others to reduce evaporation and seepage.