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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.


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."

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."


Now, the Deschutes River Conservancy is turning to a challenge of an entirely different magnitude: reviving the Deschutes itself.

The natural flow of the mainstem Deschutes is 13 times that of Whychus Creek. Twelve times more farmland depends on water from the mainstem than from Whychus. And pressures from urban growth are far greater on the mainstem as well: The river-restoration effort will have to compete for water with the booming cities of Bend and Redmond. Thanks in part to their frequent appearance on Top 10 Best Places to Live in the West lists, these cities have been growing at between 6 and 8 percent a year. That’s a growth rate that, percentage-wise, rivals Las Vegas and Phoenix.

In the past — and in much of the rest of the West — the cities could simply pull more water from the river, or sink another well. But last year, the state of Oregon, recognizing that water in the Upper Deschutes Basin is over-appropriated, announced that it will not issue any new water rights here. Now, new needs can only be met through a Rubik’s Cube-like reshuffling of the existing supply. And while ag-to-urban water transfers are nothing new — farmers and cities on Colorado’s Front Range have been cutting deals for decades — working the environment into that relationship is fairly radical.

It also puts considerable pressure on the irrigation districts, which hold most of the water. That led Steve Johnson, the Central Oregon Irrigation District manager, to seek a better sense of what demands his district will face. Using a quarter-million-dollar grant from the U.S. Interior Department’s "Water 2025" initiative, Johnson and the conservancy spent the past year estimating future needs for both the cities and the river. They then used that information to create a 20-year plan for meeting those needs, while still sustaining farming in the Upper Basin. It is, in effect, a blueprint for avoiding a water war.

Bruce Aylward did much of the work on the plan. Before he came to the conservancy in 2002, Aylward worked as a consulting economist to the World Bank, and he prefaces much of what he says by drawing an x and y axis on the nearest whiteboard. Aylward found that despite the high rates of growth, future urban demands should be relatively small. The real need — nearly three-quarters of total future demand — will be for water to restore the river. He also discovered that an acre of houses uses about a third of the water necessary to irrigate an acre of agricultural land; developing farmland actually frees up water that can go back instream. "In the end," says Aylward, "I had to conclude that sometimes growth is good."

Water does not, however, simply flow from farmland to cities and rivers. Free-market environmental economists have touted water markets as the most efficient way to move water from agriculture to new uses. But unregulated markets are prime habitat for speculators, middlemen and developers with deep pockets — all of whom can drive water prices sky-high. In Reno, Nev., another city that has hit the limits of its available water, housing developers were paying a mind-boggling $50,000 an acre-foot for water rights last year. Under those conditions, people of more modest means — and organizations trying to restore river flows — are simply priced out of the market.

In the Deschutes River Conservancy’s conference room, Aylward pulls the cap off his dry-erase marker for a quick lesson in how to incorporate social and environmental conscience into a water market. "To have people making a profit off a public resource doesn’t really make sense," he says. "But you can design the market to meet societal purposes, rather than just having a market for the sake of having a market."

Earlier this year, Aylward helped create the nonprofit Central Oregon Water Bank, which he now runs out of the conservancy’s offices. Rather than trying to turn a profit on water deals, the state-chartered bank buys water from farmers, pools it together, and then permanently "reallocates" it — at cost, plus transaction fees — to cities and the river.

The crux of that effort was getting farmers to give up water. Again, Steve Johnson’s Central Oregon Irrigation District took the lead. This summer, his district and another local one agreed to relinquish some of their water for reallocation by the bank. It was a perilous step into the unknown: It requires drying up farmland, which potentially hurts the district as well as the farmer, because irrigation districts raise operating revenues through assessment fees on each acre of irrigated land.

But Johnson thinks he’s hit on a way to make it work. When a farmer sells his water, the buyer pays a $1,000-an-acre "exit fee" to the district. That fee goes into an endowment fund and generates interest to replace the lost assessments.

Johnson’s district is starting small: Its board of directors has agreed to allow just 240 acres to go out of production this year. But even that was a huge threshold to cross. "I had to work with my board for six months to show them that whether we like it or not, the cities are gonna grow," says Johnson. "I had a board member tell me, ‘My mind understands and agrees with what you’re saying, but my heart’s telling me something different.’ So there’s a cultural shock and a cultural change that’s still ongoing."

But Deschutes farmers can always find a powerful example of the perils of being unwilling to yield even a little. All they have to do is look just 130 miles down the road. "Unless you want to end up like the Klamath, you have to compromise," Aylward says. "And a compromise where you keep 90 percent of your district intact and your finances look good, as opposed to the wild unknown, with water agents running around and prices going up, isn’t bad."


Still, the path that people in the Deschutes has chosen comes with its own price, and difficult choices may lie in the years ahead.

Aylward’s 20-year plan for meeting urban and instream demands looks first to water that will spin off as development spreads across a projected 9,000 acres — some 5 percent of the basin’s irrigated land. The remainder of the water, says Aylward, will come from efficiency projects, to avoid taking any more land out of production.

Efficiency, however, is expensive. It can be far cheaper to simply buy or lease a farmer’s water right, take that land out of production, and return the water instream. In the Deschutes, buying an acre-foot outright runs from $330 to $550. Leasing an acre-foot for a year costs, on average, less than $4.50. In contrast, Aylward estimates that, in the future, it will take an average of at least $1,000 of canal-piping work to yield an acre-foot of water.

The emphasis on efficiency projects drove the total cost of the 20-year plan to $135 million. Getting the money needed to make the plan work will be a challenge. Johnson and Aylward have proposed a four-way split between the federal government, the state, nonprofit and quasi-governmental interests including the conservancy and the Bonneville Power Administration, and the irrigation districts.

"I think everybody has to have skin in the game," says Johnson. But he adds that the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina have substantially eaten into available federal funding. "The 2007 budget, which Congress is trying to pass right now, is tight. The thinking is that the ’08 budget is worse."

That raises the question of whether there is a more cost-effective way to meet the challenge. Nearly three-quarters of the plan’s $135 million price tag is for efficiency improvements — but they will yield only about half the total water needed. "You could do the same thing with $50 million less," says Aylward, "if you just took a small percentage (more) land out of production."

Yet taking a mixed approach — call it the middle path — makes it possible to shift water to new uses without completely raiding farms for their water. That’s an issue that Marc Thalacker has grappled with on a small scale in the Three Sisters Irrigation District.

"Yeah, we can say we’re just gonna cater to growth and dry up farmland. But do you want to dry it all up?" he says. Efficiency projects like pipelines may be more expensive than fallowing land and transferring the water instream. But, Thalacker says, "The pipeline is creating sustainable ag" — that is, allowing farming to continue in the face of urban growth — "so you’re still protecting ag, and at the same time creating flows for fish."

And by allowing irrigation districts to let go of their water at a comfortable pace, the process also gives them some control over a potentially scary future. "Buying water and retiring farm land in an ag community risks hollowing out the infrastructure for that community," says Malloch, the Seattle attorney. "Are enough farms left to keep the ditches running and the schools, equipment dealers and farm supply companies in business? Dry up enough land and eventually the economics no longer work for that community."

Because the economics of farming are marginal, "That will happen in a lot of places whether the water gets bought or not," Malloch adds. "But I think the conservancy is working with people to manage that process and keep a core agricultural community going."


The effort is not without critics. One longtime member of the Central Oregon Irrigation District, who recently stepped down, says that the river restoration effort has been perpetrated by "highly educated, very intelligent people that have never tried to irrigate a garden." Other farmers have likened the steelhead reintroduction to the federal government’s reintroduction of wolves into Idaho: Once the fish are back, they will likely be protected under the Endangered Species Act and farmers will suddenly be liable for harm to them.

And while few people inside the river-restoration effort are willing to say so out loud, the entire project is something of a calculated gamble. Even if the instream flow targets can be met, they may not be enough to successfully re-establish steelhead runs in the basin. The federal government could come calling for more water.

Still, if the Klamath provides a cautionary example of what happens when the ratchet is tightened down too far, the Deschutes may be the counterexample: An effort to slowly unwind the water-development ratchet before it breaks and mauls someone. "We can all see the problem, and if we work together, nobody gets anything taken away from them," says Bob Main, the former water master. "They may give something up, but they will get something in return."

That something might only be peace of mind, but even that may be worth the price. During his tenure at the state water resources department, Main oversaw not only the Deschutes but the Klamath, too. There, Main witnessed firsthand the carnage as farmers, Indians and environmentalists threatened each other with the prospect that, as he puts it, they would "legally undo everything you hold dear."

"Here," he says, "nobody feels attacked and destroyed by somebody with a bigger hammer. This is an effort that can go on for another 50 years."

Main is quick to concede that unwinding the ratchet is a perilous process, one that takes patience — and trust — on everyone’s part. But people here are committed to playing by the rules they’ve created for themselves. In the cost-benefit analyses constantly running through Steve Johnson and Marc Thalacker’s heads, money spent on lawsuits could be put to far more productive use piping canals.

Each additional cubic-foot per second put in Whychus Creek or the Deschutes is water that will never touch a farmer’s fields. But it’s also insurance that the federal government won’t step in with its own set of rules, as it did in the Klamath.

Thalacker concedes that he sometimes loses sleep worrying about whether, when the fish return in 2011, there won’t be enough water to sustain them. "But as we have each success, it moves us up to the next project," he says. "And let’s say in 2011, we’ve got a good steady flow of 20 second-feet in the creek. If someone says, ‘Well, you know, we really need 25,’ is an environmental group going to come sue us over that? I don’t believe so. I think they’ll come to us and say, ‘How do we get that next five second-feet?’ "

If the Deschutes has proved anything so far, it’s that incremental efforts — second-foot after second-foot after second-foot — add up. In our determination to turn the West into something it was never meant to be, we unraveled an intricate world. Re-creating that world begins with fussing and obsessing over the tiniest details of every single stretch of screwed-up stream.

Similar efforts are already under way on neighboring Columbia River tributaries like the Umatilla, Walla Walla, John Day and Yakima rivers. And somewhere far beyond these incremental efforts lies a much bigger possibility: The chance to break out of the cycle of water shortages and water wars, and step into a world where steelhead and salmon can sustain themselves.

That day is a long way off. But more than a century’s worth of bad news cannot obscure this fact: Nowhere is it written that irrigated agriculture, cities, and fresh, wild-caught steelhead sandwiches are fundamentally irreconcilable phenomena.

Matt Jenkins is West Coast correspondent for High Country News. This article was made possible with support from the William C. Kenney Watershed Protection Foundation and the Jay Kenney Foundation.

The following sidebar article accompanies this story:

How to save a creek... one drop at a time - A detailed map shows the work being done on Oregon’s Whychus Creek to restore instream flows with the cooperation of local farmers