Landscape Amnesia and The Deschutes River

The once gin clear Deschutes River near Bend, Oregon  is now a pea-green or dirty blonde due to irrigation degradation of the river. Photo George Wuerthner 

This past week I hiked along the Upper Deschutes River. It was a pea-green color, or maybe you might say dirty blonde. Whatever adjective you like, the Upper Deschutes is a severely degraded river due to the irrigation industry.

Fall color along the Deschutes River near Bend, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

Most people living in Bend probably think the Deschutes is a beautiful river and in many ways it still is. However, few know how degraded the Deschutes River has become because of what I call Landscape Amnesia.

Landscape Amnesia happens when people get used to degraded lands and forget what the landscape once looked like. As a result, we normalize the degraded conditions.

During the summer irrigation season, the Upper Deschutes River increased flows results in significant sediment flows since rrigators use the public’s river as an irrigation canal. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Deschutes was once one of the clearest rivers in the West. Its annual flow varied annually on average between 700-800 CFS. That steady current was maintained by seepage from numerous springs and spring-fed tributaries that provided a year-round constant, clear discharge.

The Deschutes River once had clear cold water like the Metolius River seen here, but has been severely degraded by irrigators. Photo George Wuerthner 

A hundred years ago, the Deschutes River looked like the Fall or Metolius Rivers, which still possess natural flows. I encourage everyone to visit one of these rivers to see what we have lost.

This is the same river taken on the same day. The top image is upstream of Bend before irrigators remove the bulk of the river’s water and the second anemic stream, little more than a creek,  is the Deschutes “River” downstream of Bend.  This is legalized vandalism. Photo George Wuerthner 

However, since the capture of the river by the irrigation industry, the Deschutes River can vary from 100 CFS to more than 2500 CFS. How does this affect the river?

In winter the flows of the Upper Deschutes River are turned “off” by irrigators and drop to near zero, leaving many aquatic life from trout to frogs high and dry. Photo George Wuerthner 

In winter, the river is “turned off” to store water in upstream reservoirs. As a result, the river drops to  expose the riverbanks to freeze-thaw, which loosens sediment. When water is released from the reservoirs during the irrigation season and floods the upper river, these sediments are swept into the waterway giving it a dirty brown or pea-green color.

But the aesthetics of the color of the river is not the only impact of the irrigation capture of the river’s water.

The dewatering harms the public’s fish, frogs, and other wildlife. From the Oregon spotted frog to bull trout, the dewatering is devastating the river’s native species.

The major consumer of Deschutes River water is irrigation to grow livestock forage. Photo George Wuerthner 

Some 90% of the river’s flow that is consumed is for irrigation. These are private businesses using the public’s water for their profit.

What is being grown with that water? Mostly pasture and hay/alfalfa for livestock, not food for direct human consumption as often portrayed.  Some of the hay is even exported to Asia, so we are sending Deschutes River water in the form of hay to other countries.

Irrigation cancel siphoning off Deschutes River water. All water in Oregon’s rivers are “owned” by the citizens. Yet irrigators get to remove and consume that water at no cost. I.e. they do not pay any citizens for the water they are taking from the river. Photo George Wuerthner. 

 The water in the Deschutes River is owned by the citizens of Oregon and protected by Oregon Supreme Court rulings. These decisions expressly say the primary purpose of river water is to provide for the public’s wildlife, recreation, and other values. Other uses like irrigation are supposed to be secondary and only allowed if they do not harm the primary uses.

The Deschutes River upstream of irrigation intake.  Photo George Wuerthner

Right now, the irrigators are trying to get federal money up to a billion dollars to reduce their impact on the river (why taxpayers should have to subsidize private businesses to repair our the damage they caused to river is beyond me). The money will be used to line irrigation canals to reduce leekage, put in more efficient irrigation systems on private ranches, and other changes which it is alleged will result in more water in the river.

However, more than the proposed changes to irrigation water use will be required to restore the Deschutes to its former spring-fed clear, cold flows.

Deschutes River near Bend, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

Irrigators pay the Irrigation districts who run the canals for the water they use, but  neither irrigators  nor the irrigation districts pay a cent for the water they remove from the river (as is true throughout the West). They also do not pay for all the ecological damage that the altered stream flows cause such as warmer temperatures, more sedimentation in the river, loss of fish habitat, and even loss of recreational opportunities like fishing.

Restoration of near-natural flows to the Deschutes River could improve fisheries and thus recreational opportunities for Oregon citizens. Photo George Wuerthner 

All this damage is done to sustain an industry that is growing livestock feed in the desert.

Most of the West’s rivers had numerous beaver dams that slowed water flows, captured sedimentation,and created habitat for fish. Most people do not appreciate how the dramatic loss of beavers across the West has degraded river drainages. Photo George Wuerthner 

Landscape amnesia affects many other rivers in Oregon and throughout the West. Few people recognize how much irrigation and the livestock industry have damaged the West’s waterways.

Cattle grazing has eliminated streamside vegetation, widened river channels, and by soil compaction reduced water infiltration into the ground. Such impacts are invisible to most people due to landscape amnesia. Photo George Wuerthner

People should never let Landscape Amnesia cause us to forget what we once had.

We should demand that the Public Trust be upheld and put the health and quality of the river first instead of the profits of private businesses. Rivers and wildlife need a voice. They do have legal rights under the Public Trust doctrine if only it is enforced and applied around the West.



  1. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    Thanks George;;; You write, “The water in the Deschutes River is owned by the citizens of Oregon and protected by Oregon Supreme Court rulings.” So, where are the conservation groups and their lawyers to help enforce these court rulings to restore Oregon’s Deschutes River?? Where are Trout Unlimited and Columbia River Keeper, etc.??

  2. Rich Avatar

    Thanks for the reminder of what has lost. As a child I fished with my dad many years ago on the Deschutes and the fly fishing was fantastic especially during the stone fly hatch. The river was crystal clear, the bugs plentiful with big stoneflys hanging on every branch and twig as well as your hat and the fish healthy and abundant. It was an absolutely amazing and memorable experience. I’m wondering if there is a stone fly population on the river any more with all the abuse. Somehow we need to put pressure on the government, either Oregon or feds, to enforce the protections under the Public Trust doctrine and restore the river.

    BTW it took me until the very end to realize that the word “amenia” used throughout until the very end was actually intended to be “amnesia”. Spellers are wonderful things until they go rouge. Someone should suggest that correction to George.

  3. David Avatar

    George, So what can the average Montana citizen do about this destructive river event in Oregon? I look forward to your suggestions.

  4. Rambling Dave Avatar
    Rambling Dave

    The trouble with environmental degradation is that the perpetrators don’t care and those that come after are blind to it.

  5. Rosemary Lowe Avatar

    As Climate Changes advances, we are witnessing the Demise of Natural Systems, many of which will not be around in the coming years. Rambling Dave is right. I’m glad there are some of us who understand–but I fear most humans are just too dangerous for Earth. Just think: we inherited a beautiful, living green/blue planet–and turned much of it into ruin. Frankly, I’m surprised there is anything left of the Natural World. All we can do at this point, I think, is to try and save whatever we can, protect whatever wild lives we can.

  6. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    Yet another problem with living industrially. No one should be taking any water out of rivers except at most to fill buckets by hand for drinking. Add overpopulation and growing crops that need a lot of water in arid or semi-arid areas, and voila, we have destruction like this. Humans are now living so unnaturally and wrongfully on this planet that I can’t think of one thing that we do that’s natural. And of course get rid of the damn cattle too.


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