Earthjustice Pushes Protection for Deschutes River and Its Imperiled Wildlife

Legal challenge aims to stop poor management of water flows that jeopardize the threatened spotted frog, fish and local livelihoods


Janette Brimmer, Earthjustice, (206) 343-7340, ext. 1029

Today, WaterWatch of Oregon filed suit in federal district court against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and several irrigation districts over harm caused by their water use operations in the Upper Deschutes River.

This legal challenge deals specifically with the stretch of the Deschutes River between Wickiup Reservoir and the City of Bend.

Represented by Earthjustice, the river conservation organization alleges that managing the Upper Deschutes like an irrigation ditch rather than a natural resource has caused significant damage to the river’s health, including harm to the Oregon spotted frog, a threatened species under federal law.

WaterWatch’s challenge, filed in U.S. District Court Eugene Division, deals specifically with the stretch of the Deschutes between Wickiup Reservoir and the City of Bend.

“The Upper Deschutes is a potential blue-ribbon trout stream, but is probably better known for fish kills because it is managed more like an irrigation canal than a river,” said John DeVoe, Executive Director of WaterWatch of Oregon. “We can and must do better by this irreplaceable natural asset.”

The lawsuit by WaterWatch, a group with long involvement in Deschutes restoration efforts, follows a similar filing from the Center for Biological Diversity, a national advocacy group that has also filed suit against the bureau based on protections for the Oregon spotted frog.

“The bureau has a responsibility to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure its dam system management is not jeopardizing the survival of threatened wildlife, and discontinue practices that are driving wildlife toward extinction,” said Janette Brimmer, an Earthjustice attorney representing WaterWatch. “Essentially, the law requires the bureau to follow the first rule of holes—when you are in one, stop digging.”

As a result of water storage and irrigation operations, the once stable natural flows of the Upper Deschutes have been replaced by dramatic and unnatural flow swings which damage water quality while harming fish and wildlife. One of the most visible recent examples of this harm occurred in October 2013, when a rapid flow reduction due to irrigation management caused a kill that claimed nearly 3,000 fish and sparked outrage throughout the state.

“WaterWatch has worked for almost a decade with local irrigation districts, government agencies and other stakeholders to address water management in the Upper Deschutes and the rest of the Deschutes Basin. Over that time, there has been no change in the management of Upper Deschutes flows,” said DeVoe. “Fish and wildlife continue to die every year because of the extreme nature of this artificial flow regime. It is long past time for action. If we want a healthy river, fish and wildlife, we have to act now.”

Oregon Spotted Frog Facts

In August 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Oregon spotted frog as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Oregon spotted frog populations have plummeted. The 2–4 inch long, black spotted frog was once common from British Columbia to Northern California. The frogs are no longer in California or the Willamette Valley. The Deschutes Basin remains one of the few places with frogs present, but they are in trouble.

The Oregon spotted frog inhabits wetland and riparian areas in the Upper Deschutes Basin, but those areas are vulnerable and frogs are harmed when operation of the water management system causes large and sharp changes in river flows and reservoir levels in the summer and winter. Frog egg masses are dried out, and adult and juvenile frogs can be left stranded based upon the fluctuations at various times of the year. This harms not only the Oregon spotted frog, but fish, wildlife and people that depend on the health of the river.

Read the legal challenge.

An Oregon spotted frog, in the Conboy National Wildlife Refuge.
An Oregon spotted frog, in the Conboy National Wildlife Refuge. (Teal Waterstrat / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

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