Habitat Conservation Plan advances to final stages | Environment


The Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan, which will impact the flow rates of the Deschutes River for at least three decades, passed a key hurdle as it moves through the approval process by federal regulators.

The conservation plan, along with an environmental impact statement, was published Friday in the Federal Register, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. What remains of the approval process is a 30-day waiting period and a permit decision, per requirements by the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The plan, developed by eight irrigation districts and the city of Prineville, is outlined in a sweeping 753-page document that describes requirements for the districts to receive an Incidental Take Permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The permit and the conservation plan shield the irrigation districts from litigation by environmental opponents, provided they are implementing the conservation measures outlined in the plan. Without them, the districts could be open to lawsuits for the “incidental take” of a threatened species as a result of their operations. Species covered include the Oregon spotted frog, bull trout, steelhead, and sockeye salmon.

In an earlier emailed statement, Bridget Moran, field supervisor for the fish and wildlife service in Bend, said a final permit decision is expected by the end of the year.

The conservation project affects not only Wickiup Reservoir and the Deschutes River, but other rivers, streams, and reservoirs in Central Oregon. Ochoco Reservoir, Prineville Reservoir, Whychus Creek, the Crooked River, and Crescent Lake Reservoir are among the affected areas.

“The HCP includes some significant commitments by the districts,” said Mike Britton, general manager for North Unit Irrigation District, one of the eight districts to apply for the permits. “I believe we can obtain the goals we’ve set out to reach as long as we can continue to do the projects that are the cornerstone of the HCP.”

The big-ticket item in the conservation plan is a timeline for the increase in flow rates for the Deschutes. These rates include a minimum flow of 100 cubic feet per second in years one through seven during winter, then 300 cfs during winter in years eight through 12. Finally, the flow in the Deschutes is expected to be 400 to 500 cfs in winter from years 13 through 30.

The conservation project would start in 2021, so by the fall of 2028, the flow of the Deschutes River should increase to 300 cfs.

In addition, the North Unit Irrigation District, which operates the Wickiup Dam, will increase the flow rate to no less than 600 cfs by April 1 each year, and maintain those flows for the entire month of April to support Oregon spotted frog breeding.

The conservation plan also calls for a winter flow rate in the Deschutes River of at least 250 cfs below Bend to support habitat for fish covered by the plan.

Increasing the flow of water in winter, especially in the Upper Deschutes, is an attempt to moderate the large swings that occur in autumn and spring as the irrigation districts dial back and then increase the flow of water to accommodate the needs of the farming community.

The rapid swings of water in a river that historically had an even flow has widened the Deschutes channel, eroded its banks, and washed away vegetation. Damage to the river has degraded breeding areas for the Oregon spotted frog, and contributed to its decline in the Upper Deschutes.

In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the spotted frog threatened under the endangered species act, a decision that confirmed the need for improved flows in the Deschutes River. That decision resulted in an increase to 100 cfs winter release from Wickiup and timelines for completion of the HCP.

To help address the…

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