Lawsuits filed by environmental groups against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and multiple Central Oregon water districts, including the Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID), demand changes to the way the Deschutes River's water is managed. The environmental groups are using the destruction of habitat of the spotted frog and the federal Endangered Species Act to trigger changes in Central Oregon's water management. Just below the surface of the requested injunction, run deeper questions: At what point are senior water rights holders accountable for environmental damage? Is there any way to improve an antiquated water rights system? Should senior water rights holders have the right to the last drop of water?
At the root of the problem are 19th century water laws in the west that are wreaking havoc in the 21st century, not just in Oregon, but in drought-ravaged California, as well. In Oregon, COID, with operations beginning in 1900, is not just one of the oldest irrigation districts, it is a senior water rights holder in Central Oregon. Today COID is a quasi-governmental "Municipal Corporation" that operates tax-free. Revenue streams come from providing water, "patron assessments," and by generating power via hydropower plants built along the canals.
More than a century ago, private capitalists, including Alexander Drake, built canals in Central Oregon to attract settlers with the promise of irrigation for farming. In the late 1800s, the U.S. Congress passed laws to encourage settlement in the arid Western states. At that time, most of the land was owned by the U.S. government. The state of Oregon soon adopted these laws and authorized the building and operation of for-profit canals.
Pat Kliewer, of Kliewer Engineering & Associates, has studied the subject for several years. She says that based on information from historic documents, the Deschutes River has been over-allocated for more than 100 years.
Kliewer is a critic of hydropower generation on canals—including the Juniper Ridge power plant, as well as large-scale piping diversion projects —saying that these practices do not conserve water.
"If we took the power plants offline, would that help conserve water? Absolutely," says Kliewer. Her analysis of Bureau of Water Reclamation records shows significantly higher Deschutes River water diversion since the plants were built. She believes that more water is being diverted for hydropower than ever before. "Hydropower plants need a certain amount of water and the more water going through them, the more power output they have," she explains. Heavy diversion impacts the amount of water available in the upper Deschutes basin, with a lack of water resulting in habitat destruction.
Bend resident Aleta Warren, who lives on the Pilot Butte Canal, has noticed in recent years that the canal is flowing so high that it spills over the brim. Kliewer notes the canals were not designed for that capacity of flow, rather, they should be kept at 18" below the top. With no incentive to conserve, she asserts that COID has kept canal flows high to increase flow to hydropower plants.
Shon Rae, Communications Manager at the Central Oregon Irrigation District, presents a different argument. "Hydropower generation in irrigation canals is one of the greenest forms of energy available and has the ability to help fund these large conservation projects. It would seem like those two things combined are very environmentally conscious decisions."
Kliewer is skeptical. "What I have found in my research is that hydropower plants are the opposite of water conservation on irrigation systems," Kliewer says.
Like many residents living along Central Oregon's canals, Warren doesn't want to see large diversion pipes in her backyard. Piping, however, seems to be the chief method for water conservation considered by COID. In early February, part of the Pilot Butte Canal was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, despite COID's plans to pipe it.
Kliewer says, "The Land Use Board of Appeals ruled that piping half of the historic Pilot Butte district was not a conservation project. COID did not present any evidence that made the Land Use Board of Appeals believe that. In fact, they found it was an extension of the existing hydropower project, and the sole purpose of piping this stretch was to produce more hydropower income for the district."
COID's Rae says, "That project, as presented, was taken off the table several months ago to re-evaluate our conservation plans going forward. This was withdrawn to evaluate our whole system." A System Improvement Plan (SIP) is now being prepared, she says. When asked if COID would pursue piping in the 1.5-mile historic section of the canal, Rae said, "We will be pursuing all options for conservation pending the SIP outcome." She added, "Bottom line is that COID is committed to conservation for the good of our patrons, community and the environment, and nothing will distract us from pursuing that."
Conservation talking points are not likely to satisfy environmental groups seeking a legal remedy. The uncomfortable uncertainty about water is particularly worrisome among growers in the region who don't know if they will have enough water for their crops in April.