Whychus Creek. Photo courtesy of Deschutes River Conservancy 

Central Oregon

Collaboration Carves a Path Through Water Challenges In Central Oregon

A Q&A with Kate Fitzpatrick of the Deschutes River Conservancy

Water is both a defining feature and precious resource of central Oregon. Tribes and farmers, fish and wildlife, businesses and residents — everybody needs it. But only if they work together to manage it, will there be enough water for all of them. That’s where the 47-member, locally led Deschutes Basin Water Collaborative (DBWC) comes in. DBWC members include every type of water user, who wrestle together over how to share water from the Deschutes River in ways that ensure healthy streams, thriving agriculture and vibrant communities throughout Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties. In a time when common ground seems hard to find, the collaborative offers a successful model for other contentious environmental issues, spotlighted earlier this month by OPB’s Think Out Loud and in OPB’s Oregon Solutions series.

Key to the DBWC’s work is the nonprofit Deschutes River Conservancy, which provides leadership, technical support and coordination for the collaborative, with grant support from Oregon Community Foundation. Kate Fitzpatrick is the DRC’s Executive Director. With time, authentic concern for other people’s perspectives, and more than a few cups of coffee, Fitzpatrick says, a collaborative approach to issues of water, land and climate can yield surprising results: “There's often a bigger solution space where interests converge than people imagine.”

Get to know: Kate Fitzpatrick

  • Role: Executive Director, Deschutes River Conservancy (DRC) 
  • Age: 49 
  • Hometown: Grew up on a small lake in southeast Michigan, outside of Detroit  
  • How she got to central Oregon: After earning her master’s degree in environmental studies from the University of Oregon in 2003, she moved to Bend to work for the DRC. Sixteen years later, she became Executive Director.  
  • Sons: Kellen (16) and Wade (13), the latter named for something you do in a river  
  • Favorite place to get wet: First Street Rapids in downtown Bend (“Every day after work, I’ll jump in the river, and it’s a total transformation.) 

This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.  

OCF: How would you describe the importance of a healthy Deschutes River Basin? 

Fitzpatrick: We call it the lifeblood of central Oregon, the Deschutes River. And it's really the driving factor behind why a lot of people come to live here, and why people stay.  

The rivers, agriculture, Tribes and cities all need water in the Deschutes. We all depend on the river, whether it's for growing crops, for drinking water, recreation, spiritual wellness, or all of those reasons. 

Businesses depend on it directly. For example, the breweries use the water for their businesses. But beyond that, the businesses are reliant on the community that is here because of the river. The existence of the river drives the way of life here and the economy that we all rely on.  

Downstream, the (Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs) depend on it both for drinking water and the fish that are central to their culture.  

In so many ways, healthy rivers are symbolic of a healthy community. 

Let’s flip that question: What happens to this region if water is not managed well and becomes increasingly scarce?   

For agriculture, it would mean unreliable water, and farmers having to fallow large portions of their acreage, which of course impacts the economy throughout the region. For cities it would mean not being able to accommodate growth. In some rural areas, it already means that some wells are drying up and need to be deepened. For the Tribes, it means insufficient water in the rivers, which is their drinking water. And it means less or no fish, which are so important to their culture.

Deschutes River Basin, courtesy of Deschutes River Conservancy

How are the Tribes and the Deschutes River Conservancy (DRC), which you lead, connected?  

The Tribes are why we exist. We were formed by the Tribes, in collaboration with environmental and irrigation leaders. But it really came from the Tribes recognizing the need to make sure that streamflow was restored, and water quality was protected, to protect their interests. They wanted to do that through collaboration and consensus and be proactive about it.  

As Bobby Brunoe, CEO of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and DRC's board chair, said during a recent water forum, “We’re going to be there forever. And our neighbors are going to be here forever. So all these folks in Central Oregon are our neighbors, and they’re going to be here. So we need to be working together to come up with solutions and ways to take care of the water.” The DRC’s collaborative values come directly from the Tribes.   

The DRC has a multi-stakeholder board: Two tribal interests, two irrigation interests, two environmental interests, (and) federal, state, local government, and hydropower. We always have tribal representation. So we're really driven, deeply driven, by tribal priorities and tribal values and style of working. 

What’s the backstory of water issues in this region?  

You have to take a deep dive into the history to understand the water challenges in central Oregon. In Oregon, the water is owned by the public, but the state issues water rights to use that water. And so, in an effort to settle the West over 100 years ago, the state gave away more rights to use water out of the stream than actually existed in the stream during the summer. That's called over-appropriation. It's very common east of the Cascades; it’s very common throughout the West. (As a result) many streams were dry or had really low flows at certain times of the year. (Today) in the Deschutes Basin, we're catching up from a long legacy of over-appropriation that pre-existed drought or population growth or anything like that. 

That history is still alive in the current system of who gets to use water in the Deschutes. Some of the region’s eight irrigation districts hold older, or senior, rights to use the water; others hold junior rights. How does this affect farmers, ranchers and other irrigators differently, within those different districts? 

Under Oregon water law, the water rights that were given out first (senior rights) are completely filled before the junior rights are filled. So in times of scarcity, the scarcity isn’t shared. The water goes fully to the senior user before it goes to the next user down the line. “First in time, first in right” is what they call that.  

In the Deschutes, the junior water right holder is North Unit Irrigation District in Jefferson County. Ironically, they also have the most productive agriculture in the region. So, they’re always kind of scrambling. And they’re really efficient — because they have to be. 

Jefferson County is all family farms. There’s not really any corporate farming. It’s a lot of multi-generation farms that are actually making a livelihood off that. It’s a lot of carrot seed production (and other) seed crops that are pretty lucrative. Whereas when you look at the farms around Bend and Redmond, there is some production farming, but it’s mostly hay or alfalfa or pasture. (There are also) hobby or lifestyle farms, where you’ve got people who are not making a primary livelihood off of farming but are enjoying the lifestyle of having irrigation and a few animals. And yet they have reliable senior water rights. So there’s an imbalance there. 

In a good water year, everyone’s doing pretty well. And then once you get hit with drought, it will hit the junior user the hardest. Jefferson County is the one that’s been hit the hardest during these last four years of drought, where they received only a fraction of their allocation, and about 50% of their fields lay fallow. Almost every irrigation district got curtailed — some for the first time — over the last couple years. That’s where drought is really hitting the hardest, is in agriculture right now, and in some river reaches where it is making legacy problems worse. 

Cities like Bend and Redmond developed too late to receive any rights to surface water in the Deschutes. They must get permits from the state to be allowed to use groundwater, because that same groundwater feeds the springs that feed the lower Deschutes. How does this dynamic impact the cities’ current and future water supply? 

The city demands are not that large compared to the rest of the basin’s water budget, but it’s hard for cities to get those groundwater permits, because you have to get them in a very specific way. The state is currently going through rulemaking around issuing new groundwater permits, and that will likely make it even harder for the cities to get more water in the future. It’s just another reason why we all have to work together.  

Deschutes Basin Watershed Collaborative at an outdoor meeting, photo courtesy of Deschutes River Conservancy.

With so many factors facing the Deschutes — demand from agriculture and cities; tribal interests in protecting the water; the needs of fish, wildlife and the river itself — what is the Deschutes Basin Water Collaborative (DBWC), with support from the DRC, doing about it?  

We're all trying to write a water management plan for the basin. One way to look at it is that the DRC is the core group doing the work on the ground with partners. And the collaborative is a broader group that's trying to build broad support around the basin plan and accelerate the work through coordination and funding. But we're all at the table. 

The Deschutes Basin Water Collaborative describes its mission as “Water for rivers, farmers and communities.” Why is it important to think about the rivers themselves as in need of water, instead of only as suppliers of water to other groups, like agriculture and cities?    

Water is the essential ingredient to rivers, and rivers have an essential right to exist. They are the necessary fabric of our ecosystems. They have no voice, and that’s why they got left behind over 100 years ago. I believe it's our responsibility to speak for them. Often, we talk about the environment versus economy, or humans versus nature. And you know, it’s one in the same. We are part of nature, not apart from it. That’s in alignment with the tribal philosophy — that we’re all interconnected. 

The collaborative efforts in the Deschutes Basin have restored streamflows in key reaches of the river, increased reliability for agriculture, and secured some future water supply for cities. What does that collaboration look like, on a practical level? 

It looks like a lot of meetings. It looks like a lot of time, a lot of conversations. A lot of fun and a lot of hard conversations. It’s many, many cups of coffee, and sometimes a few beers. It’s hard, and it (requires) building relationships and building trust, so that when bumps come up, which is often, you have the skills and the relationships in place to work through them.  

The DRC supports the DBWC, and both groups work towards water resilience in the region by balancing different interests. Where in the Deschutes Basin can we see the DRC in action? 

The Whychus Creek near Sisters is a wonderful example of the decades of work that the DRC has done. The creek used to run dry two out of three summers, before we began working in that reach. Over the last couple of decades, we've helped the area’s really progressive irrigation district manager to pipe his entire system. (Without piping) those open canals that deliver water from the creek, because of their volcanic geology, they lose about half the water (which leaks out). If you pipe the canals, you can take that saved water, protect it instream, and you're not taking any water away from a farmer. In addition, the irrigation district was able to hook up every farmer to a pressurized irrigation system through that pipeline. So the farmers are saving money and they're getting more reliable water. And they actually installed a couple hydropower stations in the pipelines, so they’re generating renewable energy for the community. 

In addition to water conservation projects, DRC has protected more water instream by leasing and purchasing water rights from willing landowners, then protecting those instream. So, there are now year-round streamflows for the salmon and steelhead that have been reintroduced. 

The other piece of the story is that we’ve been working with the Deschutes Land Trust and the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, and other partners, to do large-scale land conservation and habitat restoration along the creek. The creek has really been brought back to life through this partnership.  

Deschutes Basin Watershed Collaborative at an outdoor meeting, photo courtesy of Deschutes River Conservancy.

Does the collaborative approach of the DBWC and the DRC hold lessons for other environmental challenges, beyond water resilience? 

I think collaboration begins with an authentic acknowledgement of other people's perspectives. Relationships and mutual learning are somewhat magical ingredients towards creatively problem-solving through what seem like intractable environmental interests.  

I don't think that means you should leave your interests behind or compromise too much. But there's often a bigger solution space where interests converge than people imagine. Getting over your own positions and understanding where there might be some space where everyone’s interests converge, that’s the sweet spot. There's a lot of creativity there, and a lot more positivity. If you can do that, you're going to have enduring solutions. And you probably will get there faster than if you're digging in your heels. 

I feel like it's incredibly powerful work, in this day and age where partisan politics reign and we seem to have lost our ability to talk to each other. I think it's a way to start healing our culture and communities. 

What’s the bottom line? Does central Oregon have enough water to meet all of the demands, amid all of the pressures that face it? 

If we can figure out how to manage it better and get it to the right places, we generally can meet all the different needs. Climate change will make that harder, certainly, but there are fortunately a lot of win-win solutions. But they all require large changes in culture and the status quo way of doing things. Along with money, of course. 

Speaking of money: There are millions of dollars in federal funding newly available for modernizing states’ water infrastructure, such as piping irrigation canals. Matching dollars from the Oregon Legislature are helping the DRC access those federal funds for projects in our state. How does support from OCF donors fit in?  

You don’t get to projects unless you first get to the agreements and the plans. Especially with water, (an issue) that's so contentious and so complex, it takes a lot of work to get to the place where you can put something in the ground and have agreements around what's going to happen with that water.  

OCF donors have supported the DRC’s collaborative work for more than a decade. Most recently, OCF has been supporting the Deschutes Basin Water Collaborative. And that OCF money is critical to keep the work moving — to build the bridges and keep community partners at the table and support the planning with technical and facilitation services. It can seem like the squishier stuff to fund, but it’s absolutely necessary to make the big things happen.  

You have a challenging job. What keeps you motivated?  

Above all, the fact that I get to work for the river every day is pretty cool. I also love our team. They’re really passionate, and it’s a lot of fun to work with really smart people. And there’s something about finding solutions with people with different interests that is just eminently challenging and interesting. I feel lucky that I get to work to find that common ground.  

Achieving a secure water future: what you can do  

Learn more about the Deschutes River Conservancy, the Deschutes Basin Water Collaborative, and OCF’s work with communities and donors to create a secure water future in central Oregon. 

Make a difference by supporting collaborative, locally led efforts to understand water needs and identify solutions throughout Oregon with a gift to OCF’s Healthy Environment Fund and Community Water Solutions grantmaking.  

If you’re a fund holder at OCF, contact your relationship manager to learn more.

If you’re not a fund holder and you're interested in a philanthropic partnership with OCF, please connect with a philanthropic advisor.