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How Low Flows Due to Irrigation are Destroying Oregon’s Deschutes River

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

The recent article “Low Flows On Deschutes” highlights why irrigation is a significant threat to our river’s ecological integrity.

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.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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