I have some questions about the dam history of the Deschutes River.
The river originates at Little Lava Lake in the Deschutes National Forest. And while most rivers cut their own path, the Deschutes had a much more dramatic and sudden change.
You see, it originally flowed around Pilot Butte from the east, but about 188,000 years ago, a lava flow filled in that channel and the river was diverted into a new channel along the west side where it runs today.
For countless generations, Native American tribes like the Warm Springs, Wasco and Paiute, have called this land home. They used the Deschutes as a source of sustenance, its waters for fishing and even transportation.
The Lewis and Clark expedition attempted to name it the Clark River on their return to the area in 1806. But that name didn’t last long as early 19th century French fur traders dubbed the waterway Riviere des Chutes, which means “River of the Falls.” It was later dubbed the Deschutes.
OK. So that’s history of the Deschutes River. But what about the dam history of the Deschutes? That’s where we go to our friend Kelly Cannon Miller at the Deschutes Historical Museum.
“So between 1910 and 1964, there’s a series of dams all along … if you look at the whole of the Deschutes, this is bringing the Deschutes River into, you know, the world of of damming and how to humans manipulate rivers to support agriculture and to support recreation and to support all these different things,” Miller said.
With the invention of the light bulb in 1880, electrical appliances began hitting markets all across the country and across the world around the turn of the century. Central Oregon was no exception.
“So in 1910, Bend Power and Light installs the first dam at Newport. That gives the first electricity for the town in 1910,” Miller said. “They celebrated when Mirror Pond filled in behind the dam, Putnam and and all the biggies got out their boats. And there were seven canoes that were on Mirror Pond to celebrate the creation of of the pond.”
But as is always the case, once you got a damn good thing going, there’s always a demand for more dam energy.
“And then in 1915, you get the Colorado Dam. And then you get Crane Prairie and Cline Falls and the regulation of the flows that, you know, siphons off how much is going to irrigation and how much is allowed to stay in the river for fish until you get a completely human managed river that we have today,” Miller said.
Little did I know while electricity generation is certainly an important function of the Deschutes River dams, it was basically an afterthought compared to water storage.
“So a lot of the dams across the west and specifically here in Central Oregon were actually built to store water for irrigation purposes and they’re not necessarily electricity generating dams,” said Lisa Seales of the Deschutes River Conservancy. “So in here in the Upper Deschutes Basin, you have Crane Prairie and Wickiup, both of which are storing water for irrigation and there’s no electricity generated by those dams.”
Not only is most of the water not going to generate electricity, only a small fraction of it is actually going to the cities.
“So another little known fact is that only 2% of the water in the basin is going to cities and municipalities. And actually 86% of the water in the basin is being used for agriculture and irrigation,” Seales said. “And that is also a fact that is pretty much across the board in the West. So the vast majority of the freshwater resources in the Western United States are being used for irrigation.