Irrigators advised to modernize systems
Farmers will have plenty of irrigation water this season, but next year will be affected by this winter's low snowpack and increased releases of reservoir water to help Oregon spotted frog habitat.
Reports on the spotted frog's impact on irrigation were given by biologist Marty Vaughn, attorney Dave Filippi, and Bridget Moran, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, on Feb. 7, at the Central Oregon Farm Fair and Trade Show at the fairgrounds in Madras.
Vaughn gave an overview, noting four area irrigation districts, including North Unit Irrigation District, were sued by two environmental groups in 2016, over the "take," or unintentional killing of spotted frogs, which are a threatened species.
The management of the amounts and times water is released from the reservoirs was cited as being detrimental to the frog in the lawsuits.
A settlement agreement was reached in the courts in late 2016, which established temporary constraints on operations at the Wickiup, Crane Prairie, and Crescent Lake reservoirs.
Vaughn said the constraints include increasing winter water flows in the Upper Deschutes River, (from Wickiup Reservoir) to help maintain frog habitat during the winter. The schedule calls for increasing from 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) this year, up to 400 cfs over a 30-year period.
"The changes would affect irrigation storage and mean less water for farmers," Vaughn said, adding, "Wickiup may have a decreased potential to fill."
In the meantime, the eight regional irrigation districts, with the city of Prineville, have been working on a Habitat Conservation Plan since 2009, which would include an "incidental take" permit for spotted frogs.
Conservation measures in the HCP were presented to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which is preparing an environmental impact statement on the proposal.
The Habitat Conservation Plan and EIS need to be completed by July 2019 under the court settlement agreement, and public comment review of the drafts will be held later this year.
"What would they do in a drought situation?" a farmer asked. "The minimum flows occur no matter what. There are no adjustment for drought," Vaughn answered.
Bridget Moran had some positive news on potential ways to limit the impact on irrigation water.
"Piping projects are one of the conservation measures. There is a loss now of 40-60 percent of water from where it's stored to where it's used, and we can reclaim that through piping," Moran said.
The irrigation water is lost during transport in canals, which have a porous lava rock bottoms where water seeps out.
"Will the Environmental Impact Statement make us give up all our water?" one person asked.
"No, we can't put up a plan that bankrupts you," Moran said.
"If the frogs thrive and the community doesn't, the plan doesn't serve its purpose," she said, noting the impact to the economy is taken into consideration.
At the end of the process, "We're likely to have a 30- to 40-year permit (for incidental frog take)," she said.
"There is enough water, we just have to be efficient with it by conserving and modernizing the system," Moran said.
Attorney Filippi, who represents the irrigation districts, said the good news was, the issue is out of the courts through July 2019.
"An approved (HCP) plan has to be financially viable, and we believe these plans are. We believe we will be able to get funding for piping," Filippi said.