Habitat Conservation Plan for Deschutes River Benefits Irrigators

The Fish and Wildlife Service will soon be reviewing a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for Oregon’s Deschutes River written by contractors working for the Central Oregon irrigators. The HCP will dictate the future of the river.

The goal of the irrigators is to obtain a “get out of jail free” pass for their impacts on endangered or threatened species that depend on the Deschutes River for habitat, including Oregon spotted frog, bull trout in the upper river, as well as chinook and sockeye salmon and steelhead downstream.

If the HCP is approved, the irrigators will not be held accountable for any future declines in any of these species that can be attributed to their annual dewatering and destruction of the river function.

The Deschutes River once had the evenest water flow of any western river, and due to the many springs at its sources, it was exceedingly clear. The river is today is a shadow of its former self because Central Oregon Agricultural interests have enslaved it. The irrigators remove up to 90% of the flow to grow low-value crops like hay and alfalfa for livestock feed that can be grown elsewhere in the country without dewatering one of the most beautiful rivers in the West.

Here are a few questions people might ask about the HCP and irrigation withdrawals in general.

Why are irrigators legally permitted to degrade our river? Every year tens of thousands of fish are killed in the Deschutes River due to Ag water withdrawal, not to mention the overall degradation of the river ecosystem from sedimentation, channel widening, and radical changes in flow regimes. If a fisherman or fisherwoman were to keep one or two extra fish over the daily limit, they would be fined for “poaching,” but if irrigators kill tens of thousands of fish and destroy the river channel, they suffer no legal consequences.

According to Oregon law, the citizens of Oregon, own the water in the river. Despite what you may hear from irrigators, a water “right” is really a privilege. The irrigators do not have automatic access to the water Oregon citizens own. Rather the people of Oregon can permit water to remove, or alternatively, they can demand that water be left in the river to maintain aquatic ecosystems.

The Oregon Supreme Court has ruled that the primary use of river water is to maintain fisheries, ecological function, aquatic ecosystems, and so forth. Any other use like irrigation cannot legally damage or destroy the primary purposes.

Thus, a good starting question is to ask why the public has to tolerate the destruction of its river to facilitate the private profit of farmers and ranchers who are the primary consumers of Deschutes River water?

We might also want to know why irrigators can remove up to 90% of the river’s flow without paying a cent to the public for this water. That’s right; the irrigators get to take our water and pay nothing for it.

The majority of water that is taken from the river does not grow “local food.” In Deschutes County, out of approximately 45,000 acres that are irrigated by the Central Oregon Irrigation District, only 239 acres planted to “specialty crops” like vegetables. Indeed, 91% of all acreage in the Deschutes Basin watered by our water is for pasture or hay production. Much of the hay/alfalfa being exported out of the basin. Some of the hay is even exported to China. So, we are essentially exporting the Deschutes River water (in the form of hay) to other states and countries. Is this really “wise use” of scarce water in the desert?

Even the 9% of the irrigated acres (most near Madres) that are devoted to crop production isn’t necessarily feeding local people—for instance; seed carrots constitute a significant crop in the basin; however, the bulk of these carrot seeds are sold outside of the local market.

Most of these crops, especially hay/alfalfa, can be grown in other parts of the country. Does it make sense to use the Deschutes River water to grow something that is widely cultivated elsewhere in the country, often without irrigation at all?

According to the HCP, the public will largely be subsidizing any improvements in irrigation equipment and delivery, like installing piping for canals (at the cost of nearly 1 billion dollars) to get some of OUR water back in the river to help the wildlife and river ecosystem. Ask why taxpayers should have to pay to fix the damage created by industry?

Would you consider it fair if the owner of a factory polluting the river asked the public to pay a billion dollars to install some pollution control devise to preclude polluting the river? Or would you suggest that the factory and ultimately the people using the products produced by the factory, should pay for the pollution controls? It’s the same issue with the Deschutes River.

Why should we the public pay for irrigation improvements? Shouldn’t those who consume the products of irrigation—those using hay, alfalfa, or even carrot seeds—shouldn’t they pay for reducing the degradation of the river?

If the preferred alternative in the HCP is chosen and implemented, most of the additional water (our water) that “may” be returned to the river will occur 25-30 years out from the plan’s adoption. So, any improvements that might result will be decades in the future. Should we have to wait decades while the river continues to be degraded for private profit by irrigators to see if the plan will work?

We must start to question why we must continue to permit our rivers to be enslaved for the benefit a small segment of society who profits from this enslavement, while our wildlife, water quality, and aquatic ecosystems suffer.

Interested citizens can write their Congressional representatives, as well as post comments on the Habitat Conservation Plan. Online at https://www.regulations.gov:

Comments submitted online must be received by 8:59 p.m. Pacific Time (11:59 p.m. Eastern Time) on December 3, 2019. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/10/04/2019-21631/draft-environmental-impact-statement-and-draft-habitat-conservation-plan-receipt-of-applications-for


Hard Copy:

Comments must be postmarked on or before, or received by, Dec 3 rd, 2019. Submit by U.S. mail or hand delivery to:


Public Comments Processing:

Attn: Docket No. FWS–R1–ES–2019–0091, MS: JAO/1N

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

5275 Leesburg Pike

Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.


  1. Jim Wiegand - Wildlife Biologist Avatar
    Jim Wiegand – Wildlife Biologist

    No surprise here because these agencies ALWAYS go with what the big money wants. Impacts mean nothing. I has been watching these types of corrupt decisions regarding our natural resources for decades.

    A case in point……..Every wind turbine fatality study conducted in America after 1985 has been rigged to hide mortality data.

  2. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    As I recall the ESA states that “Agency actions that may destroy or modify critical habitat features, even if the actions occur outside the designated habitat area are subject to section 7 of the ESA”.

    But alas, the level of corruption is now so wide spread in the executive branch that the various agencies constitute a giant rubber stamp. In this case it sounds like they are trying to hide their nefarious behavior by classifying the above destruction as “Incidental Take”.

    I remember a case down in Kern County, California where a farmer used his subsidies money to start a tennis ranch with condos because he could not make it on growing crops. He got away with it. One honest farmer from southern Kern County was quoted as saying “the federal government takes away our right to fail” by paying us subsidies. There seems to be no end to the subsidies game. It is entrenched and will not die in the present version of the capitalistic system.

    Many years ago I used to drift a brown hackle in the once clear waters of the upper Deschutes to catch fat rainbows. But later on that once special invigorating environment became more like a canal running through a tree farm. I don’t know where this tragedy will end-but it won’t be pretty and it won’t be healthy.

  3. Ben Avatar

    Just a note – the deadline for comment is November 18th, NOT December 3rd.

    Get your comments in before that 11/18 deadline!

  4. Kelea Avatar

    Remember the OZONE layer!!!? What about the wild horse roundups in Idaho, Nevada, Utah.

  5. Jodi Wilmoth Avatar
    Jodi Wilmoth

    The name that is being used for the document is “Habitat Conservation Plan” (HCP). Additionally, the comment period has been extended to December 3rd, 2019.

  6. Breck Flanagan-Caldwell Avatar
    Breck Flanagan-Caldwell

    You bring up some very valid points concerning the ecological function of the river system and the basin as a whole. Nonetheless, they’re many critics who allege the districts conservation projects are flawed. However, its just as important to recognize that the districts understand that they’re operating with an antiquated system and are focused on updating antiquated infrastructure in a way that does the most good for farmers, the C.O. community, and the environment, but pointing the finger at any one stakeholder group only radicalizes and divides the community. The partisan finger pointing and community rallying isn’t going to cut it. Instead, lets have educated and civil conversations around our shared visions for the river. You know what they say! “Whisky is for drinking, water is for fighting”. Lets not forget both our state senators approved of publicly funding water conservation projects within the Deschutes Basin. This needs to be a collaborative effort where all stakeholder groups are accounted for and heard. To date, the districts have partnered together using a collaborative, scalable, and thoughtful approach to conservation that involves all parties. Every user group involved is committed to ensuring the improvements benefit everyone, including rivers, fish, and frogs for the longevity of the river system, so that the next generation may enjoy the same memories we get to.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner