Balancing Water: The First Year Implementing the Deschutes Habitat Conservation Plan
By: Bridget Moran, Field Supervisor, Bend Field Office and Jodie Delavan, Public Affairs Officer, Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office
Nearly a year has passed since the Deschutes Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) was signed. This voluntary agreement is a collaborative strategy to share water resources in the Deschutes Basin, covering irrigation and related water management operations while enhancing fish and wildlife habitat. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) project lead, Bridget Moran, provided an update on the partnership.
This plan was the product of a 12-year collaboration effort among diverse stakeholders, and now we finally get to see it in action. How did the first year go?
We are mostly through year one of the Deschutes HCP, and while aspects of implementation have been challenging due to the ongoing extreme drought, there are several positive things to report as a result of having this HCP. First and foremost, water and wildlife managers were able to work closely together to successfully coordinate on water management decisions for the basin. The Deschutes HCP established monthly coordination meetings where real-time water management decisions are discussed. Given this year’s low level of water storage in all the basin reservoirs, coordination between water managers and wildlife experts proved invaluable. Through frequent coordination, water managers were able to deliver the reduced available water supplies to their patrons in a manner that considered the greatest conservation benefit possible for the Oregon spotted frog, while also minimizing impacts to producers as much as possible.
There was some discussion about using adaptive management, how did that work?
Like most HCPs, this one includes provisions for adaptive management, a process used to adjust management to basin conditions based on data collected. In the Deschutes River Basin this year, a combination of reservoir storage data, precipitation and river flow data, as well as information collected from Oregon spotted frog site visits was used to ‘shape’ (specify the volume and timing of) water releases to optimize conditions for the Oregon spotted frog in this drought year while still delivering water to irrigation patrons. While all water users and the river would’ve benefited from more water, the supply this year was simply insufficient to satisfy all needs. We navigated the tough summer by having a roadmap to follow with the HCP and by working with our Deschutes HCP Permittees, who are now our partners in conservation.
Now that we are entering the winter months, what does implementation look like?
In the Upper Deschutes River, flows out of Wickiup Reservoir are at their winter (irrigation storage) season low of 100 cfs (cubic feet per second) and all additional water is being stored for next year’s irrigation season. Over the life of the 30-year HCP permit, winter flows out of Wickiup Reservoir increase to provide better year-round habitat for the Oregon spotted frog. The winter minimum flow from Wickiup remains at 100 cfs for the first 7 years, then increases to 300 cfs for years 8 through 12, and finally increases to 400–500 cfs for the remainder of the permit term (years 13 through 30). Winter flows in the Upper Deschutes River are an essential element to the Deschutes HCP because, historically, that was the time of year when water was stored in the reservoirs, which reduced the downstream river flow to such low levels that fish and wildlife (specifically the Oregon spotted frog) were stranded or killed. Providing these winter flows, and increasing them over time to allow for the system and species to adapt, will provide better year-round habitat for fish and wildlife in the Upper Deschutes River for the first time since the reservoirs were constructed over 80 years ago.
Over in the Crooked River Subbasin, irrigation districts are releasing winter-season flow from Prineville Reservoir out of Bowman Dam. The HCP requires a minimum flow of 50 cfs out of Prineville Reservoir in the winter, with all other water being stored for next year’s irrigation season. This additional (higher than pre-HCP level of) instream flow is essential to help meet critical life history needs of our native fish in the Crooked River. The Crooked River Act of 2014 allocated water to fish and wildlife purposes, but only after all the irrigation accounts are completely full. This year’s drought left the fish and wildlife account with less than 10% of its potential, which is not sufficient to maintain a winter (non-irrigation) season minimum flow. However, the HCP ensures winter minimum flows are maintained when the “fish and wildlife account” does not have sufficient volume and thus ensures viability of fish populations in the Crooked River.
In addition to water management, what other conservation measures are included in the HCP?
Three separate conservation funds were established in year one: the Upper Deschutes Conservation Fund, the Whychus Leasing Fund, and the Crooked River Conservation Fund. Each of these funds are designed to complement the conservation provided by the Deschutes HCP’s other conservation measures and are themselves requirements of the HCP. All funds have specific annual contributions, provided by the Permittees, for the life of the 30-year HCP and are annually adjusted for inflation tied to the consumer price index. The largest of the funds is the Upper Deschutes Conservation Fund, which receives $150k/year and is held by the Oregon Community Foundation. In year one, a $50k grant from this fund was provided to the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council to perform activities to control bullfrog, a species that threatens Oregon spotted frog. The Whychus Leasing Fund ($6k/year) and the Crooked River Conservation Fund ($8k/year) are held by the Deschutes River Conservancy (DRC); these funds enhance DRC conservation and flow restoration programs already in place specific to these locations.
There have been a lot of stories about piping irrigation canals (i.e., converting open-ditch canals into underground, closed-piped systems). How is that related to the HCP and does it help?
All water conservation projects that make water delivery more efficient help both water users and wildlife and thus help achieve the goals of the Deschutes HCP. Open-ditch canals, which are not habitat for the covered species, can lose approximately 50% of water due to seepage and evaporation; closed-piping systems in contrast lose very little water during conveyance. While canal piping is not a requirement of the HCP, the water conservation achieved provides a specific mechanism to leave more water in-stream for fish and wildlife benefits, and more supply certainty to water users. As piping projects proceed, our local irrigation systems become more efficient, thus reducing the amount of water that needs to be diverted and leaving more water in-stream.
Water conservation from piping will help make the HCP’s conservation measures easier to achieve. The expected conservation benefit to endangered species has also made the local irrigation district funding proposals more competitive in obtaining federal funding for these projects. Overall, the Deschutes HCP provides a cornerstone from which other water conservation, habitat restoration, and wildlife conservation can further build upon. Finalization of the plan has opened up many opportunities in the basin for initiatives that have previously been unable to take root without the conservation foundation and stability of the HCP.
Oregon spotted frog is one of two federally listed species covered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in this HCP. Now that you have a year behind you, how is the frog doing?
2021 has proven to be a challenging year for both irrigators and wildlife throughout the western US. This past year, wildlife surveys across the west all told a similar story — conditions were difficult for native wildlife. Like other aquatic-dependent species in the Pacific Northwest, the Oregon spotted frog’s habitat has been impacted by this drought.
In the Upper Deschutes River Subbasin, Oregon spotted frogs occur over an area of approximately 35,643 acres in a variety of wetland habitat types. This large area represents the core of the species’ range and, relative to other areas in the range, the spotted frog is doing well in the subbasin. However, drought conditions have resulted in drying of habitat that the species depends on. Ongoing monitoring efforts will continue to track the status of the species into the future.
The Service is currently in the process of drafting a recovery plan for Oregon spotted frog. Through the recovery planning process, the Service will assess the current condition of the species across its range in Oregon and Washington. Our recovery planning documents will include status information and be available for the public in summer of 2022.
Are the survey results available?
Oregon spotted frog surveys are conducted by an array of state, federal and contract biologists each spring across the range. However, given the broad range of the species, all areas are not surveyed each year. Biologists count spotted frog egg masses to determine an estimated number of breeding adults within populations. The status of Oregon spotted frog is assessed using multiple years of data from each population that illustrate trends. No single year of data can determine how well the species is doing; furthermore, impacts to populations are often not detected until a few years later when a more complete picture of the life cycle impact is known.
Are there any other research activities underway for the frog in Oregon?
The Service is working closely with the U.S. Geological Survey to better understand Oregon spotted frog population dynamics in the Deschutes Basin and throughout Oregon. Studies focus on small population demography, genetics, seasonal habitat utilization, and movement of the Oregon spotted frog.
What about bull trout, the other federally listed species covered by USFWS in the HCP? How are they doing?
Bull trout use waters covered by the HCP for foraging, migration, and overwintering habitat. They move through these areas and spawn elsewhere in the Deschutes Basin, primarily in the Metolius River watershed. Unlike the Oregon spotted frog, which was federally protected more recently, bull trout surveys have been conducted for decades and provide a much more robust data set used for long term trend analyses. Redd (spawning bed) counts from this year’s bull trout surveys show that the Metolius bull trout population remains strong. In fact, it had a banner year with the fifth highest count we’ve seen since surveys began in 1986.
We’ve covered water management for the Deschutes Basin as a whole; what does HCP management look like on a smaller scale?
The HCP does cover a broad area, spanning six counties and approximately 10,500 square miles of land in the basin. To help visualize management on a smaller scale, we created a story map and web application. The story map provides an overview of the HCP and then walks you through various sections of the basin, exploring its conservation measures and impacts to local wildlife, habitat, and water usage. The web application is an even more interactive way to explore the conservation measures, providing a visual map interface to track day-to-day stream gauge and waterway information.
Are there any other highlights or lessons learned from the first year?
There are a number of other highlights, all of which will be documented in the Deschutes HCP’s Annual Report, which will be available in February 2022. Please check out our webpage and stay tuned for future updates: https://www.fws.gov/Oregonfwo/articles.cfm?id=149489716