In the early 1980s, rather than sue to assert their water rights, the Warm Springs tribes began negotiating a settlement with the state, the federal government, and local irrigation districts. Impressed by this, Zach Willey, an economist with the nonprofit group Environmental Defense, began talking with Jody Calica, the head of the tribes’ natural resources department. "The Warm Springs were exceptionally together, and there was some residual goodwill among all the actors," says Willey. "They’d had their run-ins, but the tribes weren’t totally on the out-and-outs with the irrigators or anyone else."
Calica and Willey wanted to build on that goodwill and create an institution that could work to restore the river, even in the face of continued water demand from farms and cities. In 1996, they formed a nonprofit group that would later become the Deschutes River Conservancy. The conservancy now has a 14-member staff that uses a variety of methods to put water back in the river, relying on a 1987 state law that gives instream flows equal standing to traditional "consumptive" uses like farming.
The conservancy’s 19-member board of directors is essentially a council of everyone whose lives and livelihoods are tied to the river. It includes representatives from the tribes, cities, the basin’s eight irrigation districts, ranchers and farmers, federal agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Reclamation, and environmental interests. The idea, says Willey, was to get "all the people who could put roadblocks up inside the process."
The tribes, meanwhile, have gently nudged the quest to bring back salmon and steelhead one step farther. In 2004, they partnered with Portland General Electric to operate its two hydropower dams on the Lower Deschutes. As a condition of the deal, the tribes insisted on a $135 million, 50-year program to modify the dams to allow fish migration, and to reintroduce summer steelhead — listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act — as well as spring chinook and sockeye runs above the dams. The first fry will be planted next year, and spawning adults should return in 2011.
If the reintroduction effort succeeds, the conservancy and its partners will have demonstrated that river restoration is possible even in the face of growing competition for water — something that has long been considered impossible in many parts of the West.
Steve Malloch, a Seattle water lawyer and consultant who last year wrote a major assessment of instream flow efforts around the West, says, "Most instream flow people are looking at a little tiny scale. The conservancy is saying, ‘We’re going to have growth, we want our ag community to survive — so their needs must be met — and we have to make room for the fish. The only way this whole shebang is going to work is by recognizing that it’s really tough to make progress working on each individual piece in isolation.’ "
The dry run for the Deschutes restoration effort is a small tributary called Whychus Creek, 20 miles northwest of Bend.
Just upstream from the town of Sisters, at a spot fragrant with the scent of ponderosa, there’s a small diversion dam with a headgate for an irrigation canal. It looks like the same sort of slightly shabby concrete structure you’d find on practically any stream in the West. And, just as North Canal Dam emptied the Deschutes, the dam here completely drained Whychus Creek — which also happened to be home to some of the best steelhead spawning habitat in the entire basin.
"I took over in ’97," says Marc Thalacker, the manager of the Three Sisters Irrigation District. "I had one of the farmers come in to the office and say, ‘If there’s any water in the creek, you’re not doing your job.’ At that point, I knew there was a serious problem."
Thalacker has covered the walls of his dusty office with newspaper stories about how the "hammer" of the Endangered Species Act has dropped on farmers in salmon country. Exhibit A is the showdown in the Klamath River Basin, just to the south on the Oregon-California line.
Throughout the 1990s, federal wildlife agencies and Klamath farmers fought a series of legal skirmishes as it became increasingly clear that there was not enough water to fully supply the area’s farms and leave enough instream for endangered fish. Then, in 2001, a severe drought forced the government to cut farmers’ water by 90 percent to protect the fish. Facing a minor insurrection, the government dispatched federal agents to guard the locked-down irrigation headgates, and farmers’ crops withered in the field.
Thalacker has a seemingly manic compulsion to untack the stories, run them through his photocopier, and press them into the hands of visiting reporters. He has used the same technique to convince farmers in his district that they’re better off working cooperatively than trying to retain every drop of their water, and risking all-out warfare.
The farmers’ cooperation is critical to restoring Whychus Creek, because the obvious place to get water for the creek is from their irrigation ditches. While the local lava is used to fine effect as a landscaping embellishment in some Bend neighborhoods, it is hardly the ideal medium through which to run a canal. In fact, it is so porous that half the water never reaches a farm. Bob Main, the former water master, says there are places where "I could just stand next to a canal and hear the water cascading into the lava tubes underneath."
Oregon’s 1987 instream flow law opened new horizons for district managers like Thalacker. It gives irrigation districts a way to reduce their environmental impact — and potential exposure to Endangered Species Act violations — by allowing them to finance irrigation-efficiency improvements with public money, and then permanently dedicate the conserved water instream.
Since 1998, Thalacker has lined 20 miles of ditches — about a third of the district’s total — with heavy-duty plastic pipe, which has raised water efficiency from 50 percent to 99 percent. The water that has been saved has been returned to Whychus Creek. In return, the $2 million project has been funded almost entirely with public dollars from the river conservancy, Columbia River hydro dams, a state lottery-funded watershed program, and the federal government.
"I’ve probably worked with 50 or 60 farmers" — many of whom have volunteered equipment and labor for the projects — "so they all kind of understand what it’s about," says Thalacker. The district now takes 30 percent less water from Whychus Creek than it did historically, but actually delivers more water to farmers than before. Some landowners in the district have also used money from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service to convert from flood irrigation to more efficient sprinkler irrigation; the water saved through such efforts is also dedicated instream.
John Hicks teamed with four of his neighbors for the first such project. "When you’re flood irrigating, your efficiency goes in the toilet," he says. "Since we converted to the sprinkling situation, I use roughly 40 percent of the water that I used to use, and my (hay) yields have gone up dramatically."
In Whychus Creek, those efforts are adding up. This year, the district nearly reached the 20 cubic-feet per second target flow that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates is necessary to support salmon and trout. (One cubic-foot per second, or "second-foot," equals 7.48 gallons per second, or roughly two acre-feet per day.) Even in August, the height of irrigation season, water pours over the district’s diversion dam and heads downstream toward the Deschutes and the Columbia. About a third of that water is conserved from canal-piping projects; one-third is temporarily leased from farmers; and one-third has been permanently purchased from farmers and a developer and turned instream.
Next, Thalacker plans to replace another third of his district’s canals with pipe. With a $6-to-$7 million price tag, this stage is considerably more expensive than the first, but Thalacker has secured public funding for the project in exchange for dedicating the saved water instream. Once the water is back in the creek, it will carry the same 1895 "priority date" as the district’s water right, which protects it from being taken by lower-priority water users. Thalacker gets excited when he talks about projects like this, and he also sometimes sounds like a vintner doing things he oughtn’t with a particularly fine wine: "When we’re done with the new pipeline, there’s gonna be six more second-feet of 1895 in Whychus Creek."