February 19th, 2013
One of the back stories of the vote adopting the Kitzhaber Plan by the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission is its possible connection to the Umatilla Basin Project, for which Governor John Kitzhaber declared his support at the 10th annual Oregon Leadership Summit just days before the Commission vote. The story was reported by Northwest Public Radio’s Courtney Flatt in an Earthfix story on December 4, 2012: http://earthfix.opb.org/water/article/project-to-recharge-aquifers-with-columbia-river-w/. Bobby Levy and her husband Bob are large-scale farmers in the Umatilla Basin, where intensive irrigation using groundwater has dropped the water level in the Umatilla Aquifer by 500 feet. The proposed solution to this is to draw water from the Columbia River during the winter’s rainy season to recharge the aquifer.
Bob Levy’s role in helping to advance the proposal for recharging the aquifer had previously been reported by Mitch Lies in the Capital Press on October 29, 2009: http://www.capitalpress.com/content/ml-levy-innovator-103009-art. In the dry parts of eastern Oregon, water is gold. Is there a connection between Governor Kitzhaber’s support for the proposal to recharge the Umatilla Aquifer and Chair Levy ‘s support for the Kitzhaber Plan? There doesn’t seem to be any question that recharging the aquifer will be of great benefit to farmers in the Umatilla Basin.
The other aside of the story is that it also has potential to be beneficial to salmonids in the Umatilla River, which is why the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) helped broker the plan to resolve the longstanding conflict between the water needed for tribal fishing rights, and the water rights of farmers dependent on irrigation.
The story is well told on the CTUIR website: http://www.umatilla.nsn.us/umariver.html. Another lucid retelling of the story may be found at: http://www.opb.org/programs/oregonstory/water/conflicts/page_3.html. In order to reintroduce salmonid species that had been extinguished by the Bureau of Reclamation’s Umatilla Basin Project, which dates to the early 20th century, not only did the fish need to be reintroduced, so did the water to support them. Water diversions for agriculture had regularly dewatered the Umatilla River during the summertime for decades. The restoration program would require extensive habitat restoration, as well as putting water back in the river. Recharging the Umatilla Aquifer would lessen the need for diverting water from the Umatilla River for irrigation, thus keeping water in the river, rather than draining it dry.
A related story was retold by Courtney Flatt in an Earthfix column on August 22, 2011: http://earthfix.opb.org/water/article/meacham-creek-restoration-nears-completion/. Meachum Creek is a tributary of the Umatilla River, which was straightened and channelized to prevent flooding in order to provide passage for the Union Pacific Railroad. But the “improvements” for the sake of the railroad were destructive to beneficial features essential to fish habitat: channel braiding, access to the floodplain during flood events, and habitat complexity make for fish friendly surroundings at multiple life stages for multiple species.
Three of the many very interesting presentations at the 2011 Future of Our Salmon conference, sponsored by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), were about restoration projects in the Umatilla Basin. For a short period of time, the conference presentations were posted on the CRITFC website. Since that time, they have been removed. Those who attended the conference who wished to download the presentation were warned to do it promptly. The three CTUIR Umatilla Basin Restoration presentations are appended below as PDF files. Fair warning for those interested in viewing them, the files are large. Hatchery Reintroduction Success for Spring Chinook is 36.5 MB in size. Meachum Creek Habitat Enhancement is 8.3 MB in size. And CTUIR River Vision for Floodplain Management is 7.08 MB in size.