Irrigation Vandalism: a Tale of Two Rivers

The Deschutes River south of Bend, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

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” is 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!

The Channel of the 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 the water removed from the Deschutes River is for irrigation, primarily hay and alfalfa 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.”

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 vandalism. Photo George Wuerthner. 

However, this kind of ecological destruction has real economic consequences as well. According to Headwaters Economics, all Ag in Deschutes County 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.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy