Deschutes River Irrigators Guilty of Vandalism

Dried-up bed of the Deschutes River upstream of Bend, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

This past month, irrigators began the annual drawing down of the Deschutes River to the point where fish and other wildlife die or are threatened. Good people have tried to save fish stranded in pools of water. I do not want to denigrate their efforts, but the fact that irrigators are allowed to kill fish as part of their commercial operations is an outrage.

The annual fish kill is vandalism, pure and simple. If I were fishing and kept even one trout over the limit, I could be arrested and fined. If I were to dump a truckload of sediment in the river, I would be jailed. But every year, the irrigators, by reducing natural river flows, kill tens of thousands or more of fish, and other wildlife, like Oregon, spotted frogs.  They also degrade the water quality of the Deschutes River with excess sediment with no consequence.

Mono Lake, California Photo George Wuerthner 

The Public Trust Doctrine was used to keep water flowing into Mono Lake on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. The legal argument was that the state of California, by its failure to protect in-stream flows by limiting water withdrawals, threatened the existence of Mono Lake. The result was that water had to remain in the stream.

A similar public trust situation exists in Oregon. Water in Oregon rivers is owned by the people of the state, not irrigators. Therefore, the irrigators only get to use the water as a privilege. Unfortunately, the state is not living up to its legal obligation to protect its citizen’s interest in clean, functional river systems. The public trust doctrine “prohibits the state from taking action that would materially impede or substantially impair the public rights to use the waters for navigation, fishing, commerce, and recreation.”

The Oregon Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized a public easement in all navigable-in-fact waters for navigation, fishing, commerce, and recreation and has also articulated limited ancillary rights to use uplands.

Here is the Deschutes River–being sprayed to grow hay and alfalfa. Irrigators take more than 90% of the water from the Deschutes River during summer irrigation. Photo George Wuerthner

 And the Oregon Supreme Court has stated that the primary purpose of public water is to provide for wildlife, recreation, and other PUBLIC USES. All other uses, including irrigation, are secondary and only allowed when they do not impinge or degrade the primary public benefits.

The Oregon Supreme Court has deemed maintaining water quality for fish, amphbians, and other wildlife as the primary purpose of the state’s water. Photo George Wuerthner

Irrigation withdrawals from the Deschutes River are harming the primary purposes that are part of the Public Trust. Allowing irrigators to degrade the Deschutes river’s aquatic ecosystem annually for private financial benefit is criminal and should be characterized as such.

I salute those hardy souls who annually try to capture fish stranded in pools, but the fact that anyone has to do this is an indictment of the irrigators and the state (which permits this to occur). It’s no longer 1900 when diverting water from the river might have made some sense.

The water in the Deschutes River belongs to all citizens, and there are many other ecological and economic reasons to maintain natural and adequate flows in our river. Whether it is legal to dewater the river or not, this is a crime against nature that should no longer be permitted in a civilized society.

It’s time to stop this annual destruction of our river by the irrigation/livestock industry.


  1. Honest Abe Avatar
    Honest Abe

    And what is the difference between ‘them’ & ‘us’?

    Just look at the way the Feds & LEOs responded to the Squatter Bundy Ranch standoff- 2014, I believe.

    ‘They’ showed up with high powered weapons & challenged law enforcement to defend a defiant defendant who had NO LEGAL GROUNDS- Squatter Cliven Bundy had ~20 years of court appeals- which he repeatedly LOST. In the end & to this day, welcher squatter Bundy owes We the People $1M+ in court fines & grazing fees.

    ‘They’ know (or strongly assume) that ‘we’ will not use force to protect the environment or vandalize the equipment of these private parties who feel entitled to their own set of rules.

    The same goes for the unchecked & unconstitutional removals of wild horses & burros, which are supposed to have federal protection. The majority of WH&B advocates are not violent & are law abiding- they have marches & rallies & writing campaigns in the failed hope of swaying DOI/BLM.

    This is what we’re dealing with. I’m not sure what the options are. But in the interim, we watch the depletion of wildlife & destruction of natural resources.

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      Yup – there sure is a lack of shall we say “follow thru” when it comes to any penalties for the trashing of grazing allotments. Seems to me these folks dont understand the difference between a privilege & a right – and the BLM appears not to understand that either.
      And then there is the good old “multiple use” catch phrase.

    2. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      The government favors ranchers, so they didn’t do anything to Bundy and his fellow Earth destroyers. Imagine the totally different response of the cops if a bunch of Black Lives Matter protesters were to point weapons at them. This is a societal problem, and it won’t be fixed until people prioritize the natural environment and the life there over all else.

  2. Mike Higgins Avatar
    Mike Higgins

    Thanks for weed-eating that bald-faced hornets’ nest George. That can of worms has needed opening for a looong time!


  3. David Andruss Avatar
    David Andruss

    We see exactly the same along Eagle C near Richland, OR. Not only drying up the lower creek, but rearranging it with bulldozers. Nothing’s changed for decades.

  4. Martha S Bibb Avatar
    Martha S Bibb

    The Deschutes has been de-watered and trashed for decades to support growing cow food! It is heart breaking.
    Oligarchs rule our country despite propaganda that says this is a democracy.
    Nope. Money rules-“King Midas” “The guy with the gold rules”.
    Forget we the people.

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      Cattle have become one of the biggest problems on the planet. There are so many of them that they now outnumber mammalian wildlife. Even one of these unnatural animals is too many, but the massive problems caused by cattle are now greatly exacerbated by their huge numbers.

  5. Ed Hughes Avatar
    Ed Hughes

    I get really bummed this time of year, after carefully unhooking and releasing every fish I catch during the year.

  6. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    I don’t think the water belongs to anyone. Alternatively, it belongs to the Earth and all species equally. No one should be able to industrially extract water from natural waterways or to otherwise extract large amounts, but unfortunately humans have been doing this since before any of us were born.

    We need massive and radical changes to our unnatural destructive lifestyles so that humans stop doing things like this. It will take a long time, the needed changes aren’t going to happen quickly, but they must happen before humans destroy most if not all life on Earth.


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