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Guest Opinion

Time to reevaluate Oregon’s rivers as a faucet for agriculture


February 23, 2023 | View PDF

Many of Oregon’s rivers are drained every summer to support the agricultural industry, but fisheries, wildlife and the water quality itself is hurt in the process.

Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the archaic notion that Oregon’s rivers are nothing more than a faucet for the ag industry. Last fall here in Bend, irrigators began the annual drawing down of the Deschutes River to the point where fish and other wildlife have died or been threatened. Good people have tried to save fish stranded in pools of water. I do not want to denigrate their efforts, but the fact that irrigators are allowed to kill fish as part of their commercial operations is an outrage.

To add insult to injury, irrigators pay nothing for the water they take from our rivers, nor any compensation for the resulting harm.

At one time, the Deschutes River had the most even flow of any country. Due to numerous springs that provide most of its waters, the river height? varied by little more than 6 to 8 inches between summer and winter with flows of 700 to 800 cubic feet per second, which is how the volume and flow of a river are typically measured. Today the river may be as low as 100 cubic feet per second in winter and over 2,500 in summer when irrigators use the upper segment of the river as an irrigation channel. This variation is devastating to the river’s aquatic ecosystem and dependent species.

The annual fish kill is vandalism, pure and simple. If I were fishing and kept even one trout over the limit, I could be arrested and fined. If I were to dump a truckload of sediment in the river, I would be jailed. But by reducing natural river flows, the irrigators kill tens of thousands or more fish, and other wildlife, like Oregon, spotted frogs. They also degrade the water quality of the Deschutes River with excess sediment with no consequence.

The Public Trust Doctrine was used to keep water flowing into Mono Lake on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. The legal argument was that the state of California, by its failure to protect in-stream flows by limiting water withdrawals, threatened the existence of Mono Lake. The result was that water had to remain in the stream.

A similar public trust situation exists in Oregon. Water in Oregon rivers is owned by the state’s people, not irrigators. Therefore, the irrigators only get to use the water as a privilege. Unfortunately, the state is not living up to its legal obligation to protect its citizen’s interest in clean, functional river systems. The public trust doctrine “prohibits the state from taking action that would materially impede or substantially impair the public rights to use the waters for navigation, fishing, commerce, and recreation.”

The Oregon Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized a public easement in all navigable-in-fact waters for navigation, fishing, commerce, and recreation and has also articulated limited ancillary rights to use uplands.

And the Oregon Supreme Court has stated that the primary purpose of public water is to provide for wildlife, recreation, and other Public Uses. All other uses, including irrigation, are secondary and only allowed when they do not impinge or degrade the primary public benefits.

Irrigation withdrawals from the Deschutes River are harming the primary purposes of the public trust. Allowing irrigators to degrade the Deschutes river’s aquatic ecosystem annually for private financial benefit is criminal and should be characterized as such.

I salute those hardy souls who annually try to capture fish stranded in pools, but the fact that anyone has to do this is an indictment of the irrigators and the state (which permits this to occur). But the current flow is so low that the diversion no longer makes sense.

The water in the Deschutes belongs to all citizens, and there are many other ecological and economic reasons to maintain natural and adequate flows in our river.

Whether or not the current policy of allowing irrigation withdrawals and flow disruptions is legal is beside the point. It is criminal to permit this to continue.

It’s time to stop this annual destruction of our river.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and author who published 38 books. His most recent publication is Protecting the Wild: Parks and Wilderness, the Foundation for Conservation.


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