A River Once More

In Oregon, an unprecedented alliance is working to put water someplace it hasn’t been in a long time: in the river.

  • For decades, the Upper Deschutes River ended at the North Canal Dam in Bend, where several canals siphon the river's water to irrigated farms. Today, Central Oregon Irrigation District manager Steve Johnson is part of an ambitious effort to supply growing urban demands for water, keep farming alive and keep water in the river for fish

    Dean Guernsey
  • Bob Main, the former water master for the Deschutes River, says that when settlers first arrived in the area, they used 'black powder and a whole lot of labor, and they just went out across the lava, (blasted) the rock, and the groove they left was the canal.'

    Dean Guernsey
  • In many of the open irrigation ditches in the Upper Deschutes Basin, like the Olsen Ditch near the town of Sisters, up to half the water seeps back into the ground before it ever reaches a farm

    Photo courtesy Deschutes River Conservancy
  • The Three Sisters Irrigation District has been replacing stretches of its irrigation ditches with high-density polyethylene pipe, which reduces water leakage to almost zero. Much of the water saved by such projects is then permanently 'dedicated' instream to protect fish. The district piped the Fryrear Ditch, shown here, in 2001.

    Photo courtesy Deschutes River Conservancy

BEND, Oregon — If you’re looking for a steelhead trout here, head toward the river. Tucked off Brooks Street, downtown, is the Bend Brewing Company, where you can get a steelhead fillet served up between two pieces of focaccia, with a pickle on the side.

On this August afternoon, the deck is crowded with 30-something women going for the fleece-clad hourglass look, and men who carefully cultivate a style of raffish dishevelment. Their various dogs are leashed to the parking signs outside. Beyond, the river flows wide and languid through town.

The Deschutes River rises near the volcanic crest of the Cascade Mountains, gathering water for the 250-mile journey to its confluence with the Columbia. Upstream from Bend, the river boils silvery green down through ancient lava, charging through craggy chutes resplendent with ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, before it slows and widens, shimmering in frothing cascades like hammered silver.

Even in downtown Bend, the Deschutes has a living energy that helps explain why it’s such a popular destination for anglers in search of trout. Sadly, though, the steelhead at the brewing company comes from a Washington fish farm. Steelhead and salmon have been gone from the Upper Deschutes Basin for more than half a century.

Venture a mile downstream, and you’ll begin to get a sense why. Here, between two low bluffs of cracked and pockmarked volcanic rock, a 94-year-old dam slows the river and channels it into three canals that water more than 74,000 acres of farmland.

Settlers arrived in the Deschutes around the turn of the last century, fired with zeal to put the land under the plow. Much of the basin lies in the blast zone of the Newberry Volcano, making the pursuit of agriculture in the area akin to farming a giant hibachi. But optimism has never been in short supply here, and the settlers’ pioneering spirit, backed by tons of black powder used to blast canals out of the rock, broke the ground for some 2,200 farms and 180,000 acres of irrigated land around the Upper Basin.

The entire enterprise was built atop a fairly simple notion, central to Western water law: The only legitimate use of water is human use. And "using water," Wallace Stegner once wrote, "means using it up. You can literally dry up a stream if you have a prior right for a so-called beneficial use." So the story went on the Deschutes, which until recently disappeared at the North Canal Dam.

Today, however, a thin sheet of water, just a couple inches deep, glides over the crest of the dam and continues downstream to boost flows for fish. It doesn’t look like much, but it represents a giant step forward in an effort to revive the Deschutes. "You’re looking at just short of a hundred cubic-feet per second," says Steve Johnson. A big man with a bad knee who keeps a can of Skoal tucked in his sock, he runs the Central Oregon Irrigation District. Johnson is working with other irrigation districts, the region’s fast-growing cities, local Indian tribes, and a river restoration group called the Deschutes River Conservancy in an ambitious effort to ease back the ratchet of a century’s worth of water development.

The effort runs counter to pretty much everything Westerners have done with rivers for a long, long time. But Johnson is convinced that playing by the old rules only creates the kind of news stories that keep irrigation district managers like him up at night. "You read stories about Vegas and L.A. fighting for water," he says. Just five years ago, people here had a front-row seat when, in the throes of a severe drought, federal agents shut down farmers’ headgates to protect endangered fish in the Klamath Basin, 130 miles south.

"The irrigation districts look out the window, and they see these same issues," says Johnson. "You can’t pretend it’s all gonna go away. You have to engage the issue."

And the issue here was plain to see. For a quarter of a century, the state water master for the Deschutes was a 63-year-old bulldog of a man named Bob Main. At a certain point, Main says, "Nobody could stand there and see a big river on one side of the dam, and a nothin’ on the other side, and not think, ‘Gee, maybe we oughta do something about this.’ "


At its root, reviving a river that has been strangled for human advantage is an exercise in realigning relationships of power.

Starting with the opening of the frontier, farmers have laid claim to the vast majority of the region’s water and have long dominated its water politics. Over the years, cities have slowly built up water for their own needs, sometimes by buying out farms. Federal environmental laws and lawsuits from Indian tribes and environmentalists have also forced farmers to put some water back into rivers. But negotiating a new balance has been a long and tenuous process that has frequently led to water wars and endless court fights.

In the Deschutes, however, things have largely been sorted out outside the courtroom. That’s in large part because of the tone set by the tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, 60 miles downstream from Bend. The tribes, a confederation of Wasco, Warm Springs and Paiute Indians, have considerable clout: A series of 1970s court decisions affirmed their rights to half of the salmon harvest, and federal law makes Indian water claims paramount to those of all other users.

But the Warm Springs tribes also made a conscious calculation to work as cooperatively as possible with other water users in the basin. "Rarely is the result of a lawsuit the last word: It’s just a prelude to congressional action, or further litigation," says Jim Noteboom, the tribes’ attorney. "We concluded a long time ago that it’s not rational to do that."

Nonetheless, for several decades, the tribes have pushed steadily to revive salmon and steelhead runs, which were cut off by hydropower dams built on the Lower Deschutes in the 1950s. The obvious first step was to get water back into the river in the Upper Basin, where the fish spawn. "If we want to have fish runs all the way to the top end, we’ve got to have water in those sections up there," says Dee Sehgal, the director of the tribal environmental office. The fish need "a healthy watershed, not just here on the rez, but top to bottom."

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