A Tale of Two Rivers–Irrigation Vandalism

The Deschutes River upriver from Bend before irrigators have removed water. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Bend Bulletin published a piece “Fish by the hundreds rescued in isolated Deschutes River channel.” The basic message is that volunteers “saved” several thousand fish from death as the water levels in the Deschutes River dropped.

I am glad some people care about the Deschutes River and its fish, but their volunteer efforts will not change anything.

The “feel good” piece ignores the real problem. Irrigators annually dewater the Deschutes, harming wildlife like the Oregon spotted frog and all the wildlife that depends on fish, from mink, and river otters to bald eagles.

Netting fish trapped in shallow water is a symbolic gesture that treats the symptoms and doesn’t solve the ultimate cause of the problem.

The Deschutes River upstream of most irrigation removal and the same “river” little more than a creek on the north side of Bend after irrigators have removed the majority of its water flow. Photo George Wuerthner 

And the ultimate problem is that irrigation districts are stealing the water from the fish and all other aquatic life to further their private profits. I do not use the word stealing lightly. It may be “legal” for the irrigators to siphon off fish habitat (water), but it is also legalized vandalism.

If I were fishing and kept one fish over the possession limit, I would have to pay a fine for poaching. But irrigators kill thousands upon thousands of fish and suffer no consequence!

Channel of Deschutes River dried up once irrigators shut off water behind upstream dams. Photo George Wuerthner 

The fact is that all water in Oregon belongs to the citizens of the state. It does not belong to irrigators, and water removal from a river is a privilege the state’s citizens granted to irrigators.

Currently, most (90%) of water removed from the Deschutes goes towards irrigation. And for this privilege, Irrigators pay nothing for this water taken from the river that belongs to all Oregon citizens.  Nor do irrigators pay for the ecological damage done to the river ecosystem.

The majority of water removed from the Deschutes River is for irrigation, primarily hay and alfafra feed to livestock, or exported to Asia. Photo George Wuerthner

Because irrigators do not pay the real cost of their production, they in effect “transfer” the ecological costs to the public through dewatered rivers, altered stream flows, and dead fish.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Oregon Supreme Court has determined that the primary purpose of Oregon waterways is to provide wildlife and recreation. All other uses are secondary and cannot harm the primary values of the water.

As suggested in a legal review of Oregon water law, the authors concluded: “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.”

All water in Oregon rivers belongs to the state’s citizens and the Public Trust Doctrine requires the state to manage these waters for wildlife, ecosystem function and recreation. Photo George Wuerthner 

The designation of the Deschutes River under the state’s Waterways Act lists the state’s duties when managing public trust water resources in Oregon. The Act states the “highest and best uses of the waters within scenic waterways are recreation, fish, and wildlife uses” and specifies that “the free-flowing character of these waters shall be maintained in quantities necessary for recreation, fish, and wildlife uses.”

Dewatering and alternating the Deschutes River stream flows have harmed and continue to harm the river’s aquatic ecosystem.

An irrigation canal flowing with Deschutes River water. The ecological damage done by irrigation is vanadlism. Photo George Wuerthner 

However, this kind of ecological destruction has real economic consequences as well. According to Headwaters Economics, all Ag in Deschutes contributes only 1.3% of country employment, while Tourism and Travel is 21.7%. Obviously, if the Deschutes River were protected and managed for its fisheries, water quality, and maintenance of stream flows, it would greatly enhance the Travel and Tourism sector.

The state fails to protect the public’s right to maintain stream flows and water quality.  Environmental organizations that neglect to challenge the state’s public trust obligation to protect the river for Oregon citizens are also reprehensible.

Instead of wasting time netting fish, volunteers would be better off protesting the irrigation districts’ destruction of our river. Those who care about the Deschutes River should put their effort into compelling the state to enforce the laws that protect fish, and water flows for all citizens, not just the politically connected Ag interests.








  1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    Not suggesting that anyone do anything illegal, but this problem is crying out for some monkeywrenching. Just sayin’.

  2. River Nomad Avatar
    River Nomad

    The entertaining wisdom of Edward Abbey notwithstanding, the efficacy of monkeywrenching any part of the Deschutes River sanctioned dewatering system would be the equivalent of trying to knock down Glen Canyon Dam with a sledgehammer.

    Or, to use George’s highly relevant example of saving a few stranded fish: some short term feel-goods for very well-meaning citizens, but zero change.

    Not going to work.

    And, those responsible for such monkeywrenching will ironically be the ones labeled “Eco-Terrorists”, pursued by the Federal Government until caught, prosecuted, found guilty, and thrown in Federal Prison, not the local lockup. Surely no slap on the wrist and being admonished by the judge not to do it again.

    This very scenario played out in Oregon over monkeywrenching some logging equipment.

    Read about Tre Arrow here:


    Tre’s understanding of relentless, though legal, activities destroying our public lands, and his commitment to resolving them, were commendable.

    But, like the folks that saved a few fish on the Deschutes, Tre got some publicity while the destruction of public lands persisted.

    In Tre’s case, just like Chief Joseph, he was pursued by the Federal Government all the way to Canada, captured, and locked up.

    A bad, yet predictable outcome for Tre, and no benefit to our beleaguered public lands.

    The insurance companies replaced the logging equipment and massive clearcut logging of our public lands rampaged on.

    Ask anyone today who Tre Arrow is and what he accomplished, the answer is highly likely to be, huh?

    The best solution is sustained effort that ultimately succeeds, and lastingly restores the magnificent Deschutes River to pre-loss condition.

    Which is this:

    Leave the wrenches at home and utilize the identical strategy that allowed the Deschutes River dewatering fiasco to get underway in the first place.

    Advocacy and effective lawful process.

    Only non-stop advocacy and sustained legal action by top-flight attorneys will ever get the situation turned around.

    It is Us versus Them, and Them have the best downtown lawyers and legislators their profitable destruction of our public lands can buy.

    Recent graduates from low-tier law schools may have all the enthusiasm of Tre Arrow, and a lot more smarts, but if you’re in it to win it, it’s necessary to match tooth with tooth and nail with nail.

    Some of those effective downtown lawyers need to be swung over to the other side. Local, state, and national officials, especially those in positions to enact legislation, who won’t do the biding of extractive industries, need to be elected.

    Success is going to take a lot of effort along with money out of our pockets, to match the all money in their deep pockets that comes from cutting down trees and all the other extractions devastating our public lands.

    As individuals, we might not see all the future results of efforts currently underway.

    But, we must advocate for our public lands at local, state, and national levels, while supporting and pursuing legal remedies, just the same.

    It may not be as personally satisfying in the short term as rescuing a few stranded fish and seeing them swim away in a little stream that was once a magnificent river.

    This remarkable lesson of Nature is instructive: in multigenerational and multinational migrating Monarch Butterflies, the generation that starts out doesn’t make it to the Promised Land. But, thanks to them starting the journey, later generations do get there.

    Inspiration, Perseverance, and Never Giving Up.

    Thanks George, and all who you inspire, for your wise advocacy and relentless efforts.

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      Couldn’t disagree more about monkeywrenching, and you’re provably wrong. Monkeywrenching HAS saved some areas, so your single example is just that. No one particular tactic is always the right or wrong one; as I said in another discussion, use whatever works.

      As to what you advocate, that has almost no chance of working. The government is totally bought/captured by industries, so any advocacy will almost certainly fall on deaf ears. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t advocate in the manner you describe if that’s your thing, and hey, there’s always a chance. Try everything. I just don’t see how you can expect to convince people, whose jobs & livings depend on destroying the planet and killing other forms of life, to refrain from doing so. See Upton Sinclair.

      The ultimate root problem here is humans’ lack of mental and spiritual evolution, and that’s what needs to be fixed. So long as humans don’t feel at one with the Earth and the other life here, they’ll continue to kill and destroy.

      1. Mary Avatar

        Isn’t the root problem an ever increasing human population?

        Global warming lends an urgency– but would there even be a problem if there were only a few billion people, and all of them had healthcare and a good education?

        1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
          Jeff Hoffman

          Overpopulation and increasing population are symptoms of the lack of mental & spiritual evolution I described. All environmental & ecological problems flow from that root cause. Physically, the root causes are overpopulation and wrongful lifestyles/overconsumption, but the root of these problems is beyond the physical.

    2. Mary Avatar

      As water gets scarce you’ll see more of these short-sighted desperate decisions in an attempt to support increasing human populations.


  3. Martha Bibb Avatar
    Martha Bibb

    Seeing the beautiful Deschutes dewatered is a heartbreaking site. Also seeing all the stumps still left in the reservoir on low water years is also a sad site.

  4. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    Terribly reassuring that the DOJ & FBI do get these horrible horrible “terrorists”??? They certainly take their time with the ones involved in insurrections!
    Sorry – just have to say it.

    1. River Nomad Avatar
      River Nomad

      Astute observation Maggie, therefor no basis for you to apologize.

  5. Agua es vida Avatar
    Agua es vida

    @River Nomad, I’ve found that some of the most effective environmental lawyers are the ones who look first to collaboration and conflict resolution, and use litigation as a last resort. I first learned this from a lawyer who successfully led the Klamath negotiations, a Harvard graduate who was also the first to apply the Public Trust Doctrine to water diversions in the Mono Lake case.

    What is the benefit of framing the situation as Us versus Them, when win-win solutions exists and our visions for a sustainable future likely contain more similarities than differences?

  6. Mike Higgins Avatar
    Mike Higgins

    You’re absolutely spot-on on this problem, George! As with most folks who’ve lived in eastern Oregon for a large portion of their lives, we’ve been “snowed” into thinking that the Ag industry has somehow a god-given(?)right to the rivers and streams and every other use comes in in second – or worse – in the line of river/stream users. The abuse that has resulted, for one hundred years or more, to our ecosystems is certainly not limited to de-watering. Try the abuse of dumping the residuals from the abusers by their use of chemicals contained in fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides! Everyone assumes the Ag business reigns supreme, with their cadre of lobbyists in Salem, Washington, D.C., etc. It’s true that these folks can buy many more politicians than those of us who oppose them, but that still doesn’t make them right…might vs. right. It’s far past time that those of us who really do “have the hammer” start stepping up with, if necessary, our own hammers.

  7. Mary Avatar

    You are right about this taking of water, and most people don’t see the problem.

    Fresh water, without which we cannot survive, is disappearing.

    The immediate deaths of fish and other aquatics when their habitat is taken is a terrible loss.

    This mismanagement of water– a changing resource affected by accelerating global warming– will impact ALL life on earth including the burgeoning human population.

    These short-sighted decisions speed us toward an unlivable planet,

    (1) The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations,by Brian Fagan

    (2) Climate Chaos: Lessons on Survival from our Ancestors

  8. lou Avatar

    Excellent, and long needed. In fact this could be said about a lot of other uses. Look at groundwater depletion for instance. That chicken is going to come home to roost in years to come. I remember flying cross country in the past and seeing those circles for irrigation, not understanding then what it meant.

    Looks like a lawsuit is needed on this river.

  9. Shannon Avatar

    Oregon and the West need to throw out the water use laws developed in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to match ecological realities of the 21st century. However, the State of Oregon and its Democratic Party cult run bureaucratic state are as inept and corrupt as any in the SE US including Texas. Oregon’s Democrat politicians are controlled by big timber, big Ag (one in same) and more recently big real estate as much as any Republican. Every Democratic governor since Roberts in the late 1980’s only follow the orders from these industries. Tom McCall (republican, Btw) was the only and last Oregon Governor who created any substantial pro environmental policies for the state and the rest have just watered it down (no pun intended) to the lowest common denominator…Don’t disrupt the flow of money from Oregon’s natural heritage and resources to the wealthy 1% of the nation.

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      As a transplanted Californian, I’ve always considered Oregon to be run by the timber industry. However, it’s pretty much the same all over in modern society, where money rules and all else, including life itself, can take a hike. It just depends on which industry or industries make the most money in a particular state. Here, the tech industry rules, and loggers still get their way, unfortunately. And Caltrans of course, got to build, expand, and maintain roads, to hell with life.


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