Finding Water in the High Desert: Working for the Crooked River Watershed Council in Prineville, OR

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Pic taken after field work in Post, OR

Being in central Oregon means being in the high desert, so there is not much rain, and most of it falls during the winter season.  Additionally, wildfires pose a large threat to the area.  The watershed relies on winter snowpack that turns into spring runoff, so climate change is already wreaking havoc here whether or not the locals believe it.  The ongoing shifts are especially important for water resource management because the area is known for cattle ranching and hay, which require large-scale irrigation.  It is interesting so far to experience the challenge of gaining water rights in a rangeland town of 10,000 people after learning about water rights in the west during my undergraduate years.


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Popular signs posted along the roads warning about the risk of fire.

The watershed council shares offices with the county’s Soil and Water Conservation District and an Oregon State University extension that concentrates on agriculture.  Among the three, it is easy for me to get involved.  After about a month of working for the Crooked River Watershed Council, I have been given the option to work on a multitude of projects.  For example, I went on a tour of a hydro electric facility that also distributes water (it’s so clean that no chemicals or treatment are necessary!).  The watershed council is involved because the diversion of water can create problems for fish runs, especially for Redband trout and Chinook salmon, and the facility is planning the construction of a large fish ladder.


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Overlooking the town of Prineville, OR with federal land in the background.

As far as actually contributing, so far I have gone out and collected water samples that will be organized into a water quality summary report.  It is my responsibility to put together the report and analyze the data.  I am currently researching the impact of streamflow on in-stream temperature and how releasing water from a local dam could affect water quality downstream.  I hope to do additional research on my own regarding how climate change expectations specific to the region might influence water management in the future.


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A typical day in the high desert—sunny and hot.  This picture looks out onto the shrub-steppe landscape dotted with junipers and a rancher’s irrigation ditch.

Another project I am involved in is wetland restoration and creation.  Some of the funding has been approved to convert irrigated pasture into wetlands in addition to restoring nearby wetlands and riparian areas.  One of the things I am tasked to do is research the potential for PES that new wetlands could bring to the city.  I have heard the local Facebook and Apple facilities might buy up some water rights that would generate income for the city.  However, I think the regulations Oregon has on water quality trading would make it relatively easy to get involved in the environmental services market.  I recently went with Portland General Electric (PGE) and some people from the office to tour sites waiting to receive grants including this wetland project site.  This spawned some questions about the grant that I will have to answer and/or fix in the written grant, such as showing the math!!!

Some other things I’ve done or will hopefully do soon include:

  • Surveying land and flagging juniper trees to be thinned to reduce competition for native shrub-steppe on foraged land
  • Sorting and counting alfalfa for an agricultural research project comparing different kinds of manure as fertilizer
  • Dispersing weevils to discourage invasive Canada thistle
  • Outreach and field work helping high school students to gain college credit this fall

The funding for all of the projects coming out of the watershed council and water and soil conservation district comes from grants, meaning they are closely linked with government agencies for better or for worse.  So even though I have access to government agencies such as the Forest Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Dept. of Environmental Quality, and Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, I am finding it quite difficult to actually get in contact with just about anyone.  Much of the surrounding land is owned by the USFS or BLM, so their presence is rather large in the area.  The resources they have would be invaluable to me with all of the continuing research I am attempting to do, but I have not had luck up to this point.  So I suppose that is one obstacle I have hit and would like to overcome during the remainder of my internship.  I’ll just keep pestering them until I get what I need.

Aside from all of that I’ve been hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and cooking at one of the many microbreweries in what is one of the most beautiful places in the country (or perhaps the world)!


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A recent hike I took with a view of Mt. Bachelor and Sparks Lake, Cascade Mtns…what I do for fun.

About Sara DiNovi