Deschutes River–Irrigation Canal or Wild River?

All  the early western stockman wanted from the federal government in Washington DC was the free use of public lands, high tariffs on any meat coming from outside, the building and maintenance of public roads, the control of predators, the provision of free education, a good mail service with free delivery to the ranch gate, and a strong sheriffs department to arrest anyone intruding on their land. “I want no interference from the government” the rancher proclaimed and he meant it.


Centennial by James Michener


Central Oregon’s Deschutes River is one of the most outstanding rivers in the West. Fed by numerous giant springs with origins from the heavy snows of the Cascade Range, the river historically had one of the evenest hydrological regimes of any stream with no more than 8-10 inches between its high and low flows. And as a consequence of its springs, the water temperatures were warmer in winter, and colder in summer, making it one of the most productive trout fisheries in the West.


Indeed, the outstanding attributes of the Deschutes were recognized when in 1987, the Upper Deschutes River was designated a State Scenic Waterway. In 1988 it was designated a federal Wild and Scenic River.


But like many other rivers in the West, beginning around the turn of the last century, irrigation withdrawals began to change the river’s flows. And today the upper river functions primarily as an irrigation canal and is a shadow of its former self and greatly degraded as a result of irrigation dewatering.


One causality has been the Oregon Spotted Frog which was recently listed under the ESA. Another has been bull trout which once grew to 20 pounds in the rich aquatic ecosystem of the upper Deschutes. But these are only the canary in the coal mine. The river ecosystem function is seriously compromised.


Due to its nearly constant flow and high-water quality, the Deschutes was an amazing fisheries.  Indeed, at the turn of the last century, the daily fish limit was 125 fish. It was easily the best “spring creek” in the entire country. Given the high value that fly fishers put-upon quality fishing opportunities, as well as the potential for other associated water recreation like river floating, a restored “spring creek” in the Deschutes River would easily have a higher economic value to Central Oregon than the hay or irrigated pasture produced by irrigation withdrawals.


But there is the philosophical argument as well. We should restore the river ecosystem for all the other life such as frogs, fish, birds, mammals, and everything that depends on a functional river, whether we can capitalize on it from an economic perspective or not.


Perhaps a century ago, it made sense to dewater the Deschutes River to grow some hay. But today, keeping water in the river has a far higher value. Restoration of historic flows could once again turn the Deschutes into the most productive “spring creek” in the West, turn it into an international attraction.


One of the casualties of the changes in river hydrological function has been the Oregon Spotted Frog. The frog was recently listed under the Endangered Species Act finally prompting a reaction from the federal, state, irrigators and the conservation community to do something about the river’s flows, including a major study of the Deschutes Basin water issues.


The Upper Deschutes Basin Study and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Habitat Conservation Plan both focus primarily on how to maintain irrigation and the profitability of irrigators with preservation of the river functional ecosystem as an afterthought.


Some 90% of the water withdrawn from the Deschutes River is for irrigation. By comparison, all industry and municipal withdrawals amount to 5% of flows. In other words, if the only withdrawals were for cities like Bend, the Deschutes River ecosystem would still be functioning.


As a result of Ag withdrawals, the historic flow of the river of around 700 CFS is sometimes reduced to a shocking trickle of 20 CFS with serious consequences for the aquatic life dependent on continuous flows.


What the irrigators and members of the Study Basin don’t want the public to know is that all water in Oregon is publicly owned. That changes the dynamics of any discussion. If we the people own the water, then we the people can decide to maintain ecologically meaningful flows in our river.


Indeed, an article in the Law Journal the authors confirms this public ownership. The Oregon Supreme Court  “maintains that Oregon’s public trust doctrine is grounded on public ownership of natural resources held in trust by the state in sovereign ownership. The state has always claimed ownership of water and wildlife within the state, so the courts should recognize both as public trust resources. Although the state can authorize private rights in those resources, all private rights are subject to the state’s sovereign ownership—a public easement—requiring the state to maintain these resources as trustee for the public. “


What we see with regards to the Deschutes River is a failure of the state to preserve the public’s ownership and protection of our water and river system.


Why is this important? Because irrigators are removing water from the Deschutes River that belongs to all Oregonians and using that water for which they pay nothing– for their private profit.


The term “water right” is thrown around all the time. Do not be misled by the term “water right”.  In reality, we are talking about “water privileges”.


Irrigators have no legal right to our water. What a “water right” addresses have to do with who gets water and how much if, and only if, the public decides to allow water withdrawals for “beneficial uses”. The public can redefine what is “beneficial” and can decide that keeping OUR water in the Deschutes River for fish, frogs, recreation, scenic, watershed and other values is a higher use of this water than growing low-value crops like hay in the desert that can easily be produced elsewhere without draining our rivers.


For nearly a century, the public has never challenged the idea that OUR water can be removed from our rivers for FREE by irrigators. But now the Basin Study and the so-called conservation groups like the Coalition for the Deschutes, Deschutes River Conservancy, and Freshwater Trust, among others are supporting the idea that we must pay to “lease” OUR water so we can put some back in the river or alternatively, taxpayers are asked to pay for things like piping or more efficient irrigation equipment (which by the way enhances the value of the farmers and ranchers property of those who participate) so that we get back some of OUR water back in the river.


Does anyone else see this as absurd?


In an effort to partially repair the damage done by water withdrawals, the Basin Study proposes what it calls “market solutions”.  They and their “conservation partners” propose to spend perhaps as much as 1 billion dollars of taxpayer funds so that irrigators can continue to produce about 10 million in crops annually. Mind you, even if we expend this money, we will not be getting the full historic flows back in the river. So the river system will still be degraded.


Of course, if they did a real market/economic study I am certain that keeping water in the river would be recognized as far more valuable than any of the irrigated crops that are produced.


Many of the conservation organizations associated with the Deschutes collaborative efforts go out of their way to suggest they want to maintain Ag production, often asserting it’s important to the region’s economics. Nothing could be further from the truth, and one wonders why conservationists, much less state and federal government entity repeat Agricultural propaganda.


For instance, only 1,473 jobs or 1% of the employment in Deschutes County is the result of ALL agriculture which includes much more than just irrigated crops.  file:///C:/Users/office/Downloads/agriculture.pdf By contrast, tourism accounted for over 60,000 jobs in 2000 or nearly 17% of all employment and no doubt is much higher now. file:///C:/Users/office/Downloads/tourism.pdf


Not all tourism is related to river-based activities, but clearly, the contribution of Ag to the economic viability of the region is marginal.


When people hear that we are using water for local farmers, the average person thinks of rows of corn, lettuce or other crops you might see for sale at the local farmer’s market. But like most irrigation in the West, what farmers/ranchers grow with the scarce water is not food for humans, but food for cows.


But that fantasy since the bulk of our water is used to grow forage for cattle and other livestock.


For instance, in Deschutes County where Bend is located,  the state Dept of Agriculture says less than 1000 acres are growing veggies, melon, potatoes and sweet potatoes which may require irrigation water. By contrast over, 20,000 acres is growing hay and alfalfa—both very water loving and water-intensive crops.


Click to access cp41017.pdf


In Crook County, slightly downstream from Bend, it is even more skewed with only 52 acres growing veggies and so forth, while nearly 40,000 acres is used for irrigated hay and alfalfa production.


Neither of these figures includes the acreage devoted to irrigated pasture that is common in the Deschutes River Basin.


Does it really make sense to use our precious water to grow hay in the desert to feed cows?


Maybe it made sense 100 years ago to give preference for water to Ag users, but leaving water in the Deschutes River for fish, spotted frogs, recreation and even saving endangered salmon and steelhead downstream is far more valuable than growing a water-loving crop like alfalfa just to waste growing cows.


Notwithstanding that maintaining agriculture in the basin assures continued pollution of the river from Ag run-off from pesticides and fertilizers–something that the conservation groups that say they support the restoration of the river also neglect to acknowledge.


In many ways, the entire Basin Study demonstrates the failure of the state of Oregon to protect the public asset. The Public Trust Doctrine principle asserts that certain natural and cultural resources are preserved for public use and that the government must protect and maintain these resources for the public’s use.


In the case of the Deschutes River, we are being asked to continue allowing irrigation districts to take OUR water out of the river for FREE, and use it for their profit, while the public is left with a degraded river.


Suggesting that we should pay to get our water back into the river, like suggesting that a property owner should pay a freeloader living on their property to leave. Yet that is the entire premise of the Basin Study. It’s a premise we should reject.


The philosophical question that should be asked is why anyone should have the “right” to damage and impoverish public waterways for their personal profit. Ultimately this is the issue at hand, and so far, the Basin Study and the collaborating conservation groups that are colluding with the irrigators are refusing to ask that question.



  1. Howard Kanitz Avatar

    it’s too bad the Henry’s Fork doesn’t fall under the same regulations. The irrigators “own” the water and fisherman be damned. It’s time for the public to rise up and demand responsible stewardship


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George Wuerthner