Deschutes Basin HCP – Another game of “Kick the Can” anyone?

This is the letter I am sending to the Federal Register for US Fish and Wildlife – sort of. I am including a bunch of stuff for all of you to take a look at as well. These are some of the concerns I have, some of the literature I have read to bring me to this conclusion, and hopefully some information to help you make your own choices.

Here is a link to submit your own story, your own insight, and your comments on how the Upper Deschutes River is currently and will be managed:

The deadline to make your comments is December 3, 2019.


To whom it may concern,

By modern definitions, the term “kick the can” generally describes the act of procrastination which is broadly applied to actions which at face value appear to have benefit – but in reality serve only to postpone the action required.

Such is the case with how I view the content of the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP).

I have spent a great deal of time researching the Deschutes River as both an angler, and a concerned citizen and conservationist. What strikes me most about the recent HCP is how there is really no difference to the desired outcome than any of the other documents and studies which have been done since the early 1900s. Each time a study is done it says the same thing, “There needs to be a minimum flow of approximately 300-500 cubic feet per second out of the impoundment at Wickiup to allow for restoration of the habitat to occur on the Upper Deschutes River.”

Here are some of the documents where it is contained::

I can dig up some more if you like, but you get my point – this has all been said and asked for before by State and Federal Agencies. To date, these flows have never been met – and it is just getting more expensive. 

Irrigation as it currently stands:

HCP DOES NOTHING TO REQUIRE THESE FLOWS BE MET – and I challenge anyone who is familiar with the documents to show me where it states such. The HCP is basically a permit to allow the “incidental take” (which means accidental killing) of species listed in the HCP as part of the Endangered Species Act. This HCP allows irrigators try to improve the current state of water use in the Deschutes Basin and absolves them from harming:

  1. Steelhead
  2. Bull Trout
  3. Oregon Spotted Frog

There is no requirement for irrigators to achieve the desired flow rate, and therefore there is no penalty to them for not meeting it within the time frames associated with the HCP. This HCP does nothing more than allow more time to pass without addressing the flow issues in a beneficial manner. It is “status quo” defined by over 60 years of the same supporting data and the same reason why the waste will continue. It’s the same tactic that has been used since irrigation started here in 1904-1912, “Let’s do a new study using new methods to make sure the previous data is stall valid.”

Not all irrigators are the same:

The Doctrines of Beneficial Use and Prior Appropriation are the basis of nearly all Western Water Law and it is a foggy mess of vague guidance that provides opportunity for interpretation as broad as “because I said so”. Since there is no strict definitions associated with Beneficial Use, the Prior Appropriation is allowed to continue indefinitely without any just cause for it.

Finding documents to support this wasn’t difficult to look up as the basis for what this actually means is easily found in the links below.

But here’s the real question: Which Irrigation District really has a Beneficial Use? Since the definition is so grey, the people who have the water rights currently can just keep doing what they want and there is nothing to stop them legally from continuing to waste the resource because they claim it as beneficial. Not a definition provided to them – one they decide on their own.

The irrigators, farms, ranches who are providing a Beneficial Use by agriculture and livestock (via the allocated water) are currently suffering because of their lower status as rights holders. Jefferson County farmers and ranchers need this water for agriculture and ranching as they are the predominant and economically beneficial users of the water. Deschutes County does not have the same acreage being used for this purpose and consistently operates at a loss each year – while also wasting the most water. Where is the Beneficial Use from this?

A legal action may be necessary

Whereas those who are not meeting the Doctrine of Beneficial Use should have their water rights revoked – needs to be forwarded in my opinion. We will continue to find ourselves mired in a state of mediocrity when it comes to the health of the Deschutes River with this HCP and this is not acceptable. The growing and diverse Central Oregon community, economic viability of the region, and the future welfare of our fish and wildlife are at stake. Each will suffer and eventually wither away into memory if we do not act boldly and quickly.

There has been litigation of this kind brought to bear against irrigators in Central Oregon before, where water rights were revoked based on them not meeting beneficial use, as well as determined that land owners had used some shady tactics to irrigate more land than was given water right for. You can read about it here:

My fear:

We are going to destroy the Deschutes River and the species who rely on it before we can bring it back to a point of natural and diverse health.

The flows needed are not the only factor in this large and complex issue from a long term strategy viewpoint. Yes, we need the water in the river – but what are the conditions currently and how long can the river survive in this state? There’s no easy answer to this question, but when I speak to people who have lived here for generations and their account of the river during this entire time – many feel it won’t be long before the Deschutes River is beyond repair to suit fish and wildlife naturally.

Will the Deschutes River survive another decade of waste and destruction? I do not think so. I try to maintain a sense of optimism about it – but it is clear that we are in a dire situation that does not appear to end well.

Will the Agencies responsible for the health of the Natural Resources be able to prevent this? Again, I do not think so. Until there is a fundamental change to how Water Law works, it’s enforceability, and definitions provided – there is no way to structure a check and balance for the future.

A new threat:

Over the past 5-6 years or so, I have taken up the cause of trying to help the fish here in Central Oregon. When outrage was expressed through national media coverage of the dead fish we deal with each year at the end of irrigation season, I and others chose to act. We have continuously acted and will continue to act until this problem is no more.

The latest threat I want to bring to light is one that no one is talking about from a fisheries view – Bullhead Catfish. During the 2019 Fish Salvage in the area of Lava Island, I noticed a disproportionate amount of these fish in this region where they were mostly absent in previous years. This was a direct result of drawing down the water of Wickiup Reservoir to historic low levels in 2018 which allowed these fish to be washed into the Upper Deschutes River unimpeded.

Historically there have been some small populations to be found in the Deschutes River below Wickiup, but never in this area in this great number. What I mean is that in previous years, we might have found a few dozen or so in this roughly one mile stretch of Deschutes River side channel. In 2019 I personally viewed multiple thousands of them of various size and age class.

There are Brown and Black Bullhead Catfish scattered throughout the Central Oregon fisheries. What makes them a unique threat to other species in the Upper Deschutes River is this:

  • Invasiveness
    • Highly adaptable to different environments
      • Water temperature becomes harmful at temperatures above 27-35C (80-95F) which is rarely (if ever) seen here.
      • Optimal temperature range for suitable water is between 0-18C (32-64F) which is about the current average of the Deschutes. I have personally witnessed them thawing and coming back to life after a period of being frozen overnight.
    • A habitat generalist
      • They prefer the slow moving, muddy or silty bottom waters to thrive. This is also shared by many juvenile fish, and amphibians like the spotted frog, as well as insects.
    • Capable of securing and ingesting a wide range of food
      • Recent studies have shown that they are omnivores and predate on fish, as well as their eggs. Generally speaking they eat everything from detritus, to vegetation, insects, frogs, and crustaceans.
    • Has high reproductive potential
      • Potential yield of eggs per mating pair is about 10,000 eggs. Viability of population density is variable based on habitat and temperature variance.
  • Impact outcomes
    • Damaged ecosystem
      • General feeding behavior of catfish can increase turbidity which affects dissolved oxygen and impacts a wide variety of species including fish, insects, shellfish, and amphibians.
      • Ecosystem change via habitat alteration
      • Modification of natural benthic communities
      • Modification of nutrient regime
    • Negatively impacts fisheries
      • Reduced native biodiversity
      • Threat to, or loss of, endangered species
        • Increased presence of these fish will impact the listed species:
          • Oregon Spotted Frog – Eggs, tadpole and potentially adults are a food source.
          • Steelhead Trout – Eggs, and fry are a food source.
          • Bull Trout – Eggs, and fry are a food source.
      • Threat to, or loss of, native species
        • Increased presence of these fish will impact:
          • All native freshwater species of fish at egg, fry, and juvenile stages since they are a food source.
          • All native amphibians as they are a viable food source throughout their entire life cycle.

These are my concerns and I hope you will consider this when you are making the decision on how to proceed with the management of the Upper Deschutes River.



Gabe Parr