Reclaiming the River
To say that water is the lifeblood of Central Oregon is an understatement. So it's understandable that any threat—real or perceived—to people's ability to use water in the ways they are accustomed to meets with resistance. But water is not an unlimited resource and, as demands on that resource increase it's imperative that water management be continually revisited.
That's why the Center for Biological Diversity's lawsuit against the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) is necessary. The suit, argues that the Bureau's mismanagement of the Crane Prairie and Wickiup dams on the Deschutes River pose a serious threat to the Oregon spotted frog—a federally protected endangered species. The Center for Biological Diversity says that the common practice of releasing large amounts of water in the summer for irrigators, and dramatically reducing flows in the winter to refill reservoirs, is killing the frogs and thereby violating the Endangered Species Act.
"The changes to the normal river flows caused by these dams and reservoirs create fluctuations in water levels that adversely impact spotted frogs and their habitat. These unnatural water flows reduce spotted frog habitat around the reservoirs and downstream along the Deschutes River, and often leave egg masses and tadpoles stranded and desiccated," the suit alleges.
The Endangered Species Act prohibits the destruction of endangered species habitat as well as the "taking" of those vulnerable critters. It also requires that agencies whose actions are likely to have a negative impact consult with the relevant federal service, in this case, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. According to the suit, the BOR has initiated consultation with USFWS, but does not expect that to be complete until sometime in 2017. In the meantime, an endangered species continues to perish.
The BOR does not appear to be taking steps to avoid causing harm while it waits to complete its consultation with the USFWS. That's not to say that the BOR hates wildlife, or that they—or the irrigation districts beneath them—are not doing anything positive. However, conservation efforts like the still-pending Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan (DBHCP), while praiseworthy, don't negate the need for concrete and prompt reforms to dam management to protect endangered species.
"The Districts are working hard to conserve water and improve habitat for Oregon spotted frogs," said Craig Horrell, general manager of Central Oregon Irrigation District, in a release. He went on to add that, "We do not intend to allow this latest lawsuit to slow down our efforts."
However, there's no reason the irrigation districts can't continue to work on their conservation efforts. The lawsuit is not intended to slow down any good work that may be happening. Rather, it seeks to spur action among those with the most direct power to impact the Oregon spotted frog—the Bureau of Reclamation.
And while it no doubt takes some time to figure out the ideal balance of environmental and economic protections, this is not a new debate. For as long as we have known we could control the flow of a major river, there have been concerns about the impacts of playing Mother Nature on local wildlife.
It's time we had judicial guidance on the issue to move the ball forward and get past the political gridlock caused by an addiction on the part of the irrigation districts to the status quo. Because the reality is, we're maxing out our water capacity at the expense of wildlife, and enduring an interminably slow debate in the process. Lawsuits are a tool, and in this case, it's the right one for the job.