Low Flows Due to Irrigation Destroying Deschutes River

The recent article “Low Flows On Deschutes” highlights why irrigation is a significant threat to our river’s ecological integrity. https://www.bendbulletin.com/localstate/environment/sudden-drops-in-deschutes-river-worries-biologists/article_c0f8df66-e3df-11ea-8d00-53d8f511683c.html

The majority of water removed from the Deschutes is used to grow irrigated pasture and hay for livestock not crops consumed directly by humans.  Photo by George Wuerthner


According to the report, flows on a portion of the Deschutes dropped to 60 CFS leaving many parts of the river channel dry. To put this into perspective, historically, before irrigators took our water from us,  the river ran at 1000-1200 CFS year-round.  As a spring-fed river, the Deschutes supported outstanding fisheries.

Huge trout caught out of the Deschutes near the turn of the century before irrigation destroyed the river.

This tragedy continues because the public is not standing up for its rights. We, the people, own the water in the river, not the irrigators. We allow the irrigators to take water from the river without any compensation to the public, and regardless of the damage done to aquatic ecosystems. This system was devised by irrigators to serve irrigators a century ago.

Isn’t it time for us to enter the modern age? Using water in the desert to grow hay for livestock is just a crazy waste of a valuable resource. Keeping water in the river would provide for greater recreational use. And maintaining viable flows would protect aquatic life like spotted frogs, trout, and salmon, not to mention all the other water-dependent species like eagles, mink, otter, and the rest.

Despite the claims to “water rights” the actual water in all state rivers belongs to  Oregon citizens as affirmed by the Oregon Supreme Court.

“All water within the state from all sources of water supply belongs to the public,” including ground water. The Act allows for instream water rights for public uses, and public uses include but are not limited to recreation, “conservation, maintenance and enhancement of aquatic and fish life, wildlife, fish and wildlife habitat and any other ecological values,” pollution abatement, and navigation. In addition, “public uses are beneficial uses,” but “[t]he recognition of an in-stream water right . .. shall not diminish the public’s rights.”

Technically speaking, degrading the river by irrigation should be illegal since the public values are supposed to be given priority in any water allotments.

Maybe it made sense to dewater our rivers to promote Ag a century ago when there were fewer economic opportunities. However, today Ag contributes only to 1.3% of Deschutes County income.

One can make a case that the 1% are degrading our river that belongs to all citizens for their private profit.

It is time to modernize our approach to water use. Growing cow food in the desert is a senseless waste of a valuable resource—water. We need to put the welfare of the river ecosystem and all citizens first.


  1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    Growing “cow food” in the desert aligns with grazing livestock on public lands, in National Forests & far too many Wilderness Areas! It sure does seem like its time for some actual common sense & real scientific research as to whether the end sum of these destructive “projects” have come to the end of their time! The fact that right now there has been some pushback & change into the many dams installed on water courses might just hint (sarcastically) its time for a change in thinking or possibly NOT thinking!

  2. Craig Patterson Patterson Avatar
    Craig Patterson Patterson

    Privatized (water) profits and socialized liabilities. It’s the American way with every resource leading to terminal ecology, economics and society. A triple whammy.

  3. Craig Lacy Avatar
    Craig Lacy

    That is a picture of Clyde McKay. It was the second biggest rainbow trout caught on a fly, in a stream in all of North America (1912?). The bag limit on the Upper Deschutes was 125 fish per day that year. That’s right, after you caught 125 fish you had to quit fishing for the day. The D was the best spring creek fishery in the country. It’s an irrigation ditch now and they waste up to 60% of the water they take. They get the water from the state for free and there is no inducement to conserve.

  4. Tom Ribe Avatar

    Keep in mind that the livestock industry ruins the headwaters of all the major rivers in Western states. They overgraze the national forest and BLM lands, diminishing the flow from our public lands, then they grab the water for irrigating and leave the rivers nearly dry. In places like Colorado and Wyoming the rivers are a ghost of their former selves while millions of people downstream are desperate for water. If you priced water according to demand, ranchers would never be able to pay for the water they are wasting. Its time to end irrigation of cattle feed and get cows off all federal lands.


Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

George Wuerthner