The Deschutes

The Crooked River subbasin of the Deschutes suffers from classic and pervasive problems of Western watersheds. It experiences too much nutrient runoff, too much water removed to support agriculture, the impacts of dams, and increasingly warmer water temperatures. As a result, water quality of this 125-mile, critical tributary of the Deschutes River has put a renowned trout and steelhead fishery at risk. Over a decade ago, Portland General Electric spent more than $100 million to install a selective water withdrawal tower at Pelton Round Butte dam where the Crooked, Metolius, and Middle Deschutes rivers meet at a reservoir, Lake Billy Chinook. This tower was intended to blend warm water from the reservoir with cold water from below to keep the temperature downriver of the dam more balanced and hospitable for native fish. Yet water quality issues not only persist, algal blooms and plant overgrowth are on the rise.

Back in 2006, TFT’s predecessor, Oregon Trout, planted 100,000 trees along the Deschutes. In 2020, we returned and analyzed the Crooked River watershed, which science suggests contributes to 80% of water quality issues downstream in the Lower Deschutes. Our goal was to understand how much quantified improvement could be generated by what type of activities on private agricultural lands and for what cost. For example, we know that upgrading from flood irrigation to more efficient and precise pivot systems can significantly reduce runoff into any system.

Irrigated crop field in Crooked River subbasin

We assessed more than 4,000 fields, which allowed us to see and understand the total cost of all the beneficial restoration projects in the basin was upwards of $130 million — a hefty price tag. What our analytics also highlighted, however, was that if we were able to spend $25 million on only the top 10% of projects, we could remove 60% of the nitrogen runoff into this system, likely having positive impacts downstream.

“This is the power of precision analytics. We can use new tools and technologies to physically see how best to go about improving an entire system. There’s no guessing. That’s how money gets spent wisely and in the right places,” said Maddee Rubenson, ecosystem services analyst.

The analytics used to assess the Crooked play a fundamental role in TFT’s approach. After mapping any basin and prioritizing the actions based on cost and impact, we then coordinate dispersed sources of funding to deploy fixes efficiently.

“We are much earlier in our work in the Crooked,” said Rubenson. “But our work in the Rogue also started similarly — with analytics at the heart of action, getting the ball rolling and telling us how best to spend dollars and where to act to see results.”

Next steps include fundraising and partnering with those already working in the basin, such as the Deschutes River Conservancy, to bring knowledge and investment to the table. Prior analytical work was funded in part by private philanthropy and support from the Autzen Foundation, Maybelle Clark Macdonald Fund, MJ Murdock Charitable Trust, and M&T Bank Foundation.

“This analysis identifies the steps necessary to make a positive impact. Now it’s a matter of working with local stakeholders to implement the changes needed,” said Rubenson.

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