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Deschutes Basin Development and Groundwater

The human population the Deschutes Basin is growing, particularly in its upper watershed. In the 1990s Deschutes County was at the epicenter of this growth - its population doubled between 1990 and 2000. Agriculture, ranching, and tourism form the backbone of the area's economy, and these economic drivers all require access to water for irrigation and recreation. The demand for water has increased with the population in the Deschutes Basin, a fact which has affected the areas groundwater.

Because the water that is held in streams and rivers has been claimed early on in Oregon's history, this water is not available to additional withdrawals today, and is therefore not available to support new development. Consequently, groundwater has become the source of water withdrawls for new development in the basin. Groundwater is water that is held underground in the soil and is available to humans through the drilling of wells and direct pumping.

Precipitation provides the largest input of water into the ground within the upper Deschutes Basin. In the lower, drier basin, however, irrigation canal leakage are a source of artificial recharge. About one-half of the ground water that flows underground from the Cascade Range empties into streams and creeks such as the upper Metolius and its tributaries. The other half flows underground and empties into streams near the confluence of the Deshutes, Crooked, and Metolius Rivers.

Several organizations and programs exist today to manage the groundwater in the Deschutes Basin. One of the major managing agencies is the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD). The department compiled a mitigation program for groundwater in the Deschutes Basin. The program requires all new groundwater uses to be permitted, identifies mitigation tools and programs, limits the amount of withdrawals, and reviews all current withdrawals every 5 years. The goals for the program include maintaining the Deschutes River's scenic waterway and instream water rights, accommodating new growth through new ground water development, and facilitating the restoration of the Deschutes River.

One unique way that OWRD manages groundwater use is through mitigation banks. These virtual banks are cooperative, non-profit brokerages that coordinate members' policies and plans regarding water use. These "water co-ops" organize water sellers, or organizations that own water rights, and match them with prospective buyers. The banks have cooperatively-established rules and deal in temporary or permanent water reallocation. The existence of these bank ensure the validity and continuity of water rights, oversee quality control, ensure a reliable and transparent market with stable prices, and guarantee an orderly transition between users. Proponents of mitigation banks argue that the banks reqpect existing water rights, uses, and interest, does not interfere with current irrigation district operations, and uses existing legal and administrative tools for buying and selling transactions.

With luck, the combination of use reduction programs, mitigation banks, and active management will act to improve groundwater recharge and availability in the Deschutes Basin. In the years to come, these management techniques will be tested as more people move into the basin and development increases.


USGS publication: Groundwater hydrology of the Upper Deschutes Basin:

Oregon Water Resources Department overview of the Deschutes Ground Water Mitigation Program.

Market-Based Reallocation of Water in the Deschutes Basin, Oregon by Bruce Aylward, Ecosystem Economics LLC.

Authored by Caitlin Bell, Staff, Oregon Explorer