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Deschutes River

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While parts of the Deschutes are relatively clean and healthy, and it is not known to be contaminated with toxics or bacteria, sections of the river are severely impacted by low water levels. Water quality in the Crooked River is generally worse than in the rest of the Deschutes Basin.

Length: 245 miles
Basin area: approximately 10,700 square miles

While parts of the Deschutes are relatively clean and healthy, and it is not known to be contaminated with toxics or bacteria, sections of the river are severely impacted by low water levels. Water quality in the Crooked River is generally worse than in the rest of the Deschutes Basin.

In the early 1800s, the Deschutes River was known by  French fur traders as the "Riviere des Chutes" - the "river of falls." Today the Deschutes is known for its rugged scenery, and it is a popular destination for whitewater rafting, hiking and sportfishing for steelhead and trout. Much of the Deschutes River is designated as a National Wild and Scenic River.

The Deschutes flows through Central Oregon and is a major tributary to the Columbia River. The Deschutes Basin encompasses roughly 10,000 miles, making it the second largest river basin in the state. The Deschutes begins in Little Lava Lake in the Cascade Mountains, flows through two reservoirs and the city of Bend, and heads north through a deep gorge. The river forms Lake Billy Chinook at the Pelton Round Butte Dam Complex, where it is joined by the Metolius River and the Crooked River. Natural flows in the lower Deschutes have less seasonal variation than most U.S. rivers because much of the lower river's water comes from groundwater. It passes through the Warm Springs Indian reservation, and a popular whitewater stretch near the city of Maupin, before ending at its confluence with the Columbia.

A Closer Look

Water quality on the Deschutes is highly variable from one part of the river to another, from season to season, and from year to year. The most significant factor contributing to degraded water quality in the Deschutes is low streamflows. Downstream of Bend in the summer, nearly 98% of the river's waters are diverted for irrigation. This leaves very little water in the middle Deschutes River in the summer months, resulting in significant water quality problems and habitat degradation. In the winter, streamflows are low in the upper Deschutes, defined as the reach from below Wickiup Reservoir to Bend, because water is being held in the reservoir for irrigation season. Central Oregon is experiencing rapid urban growth and changes in lifestyle and land uses.

Population in Central Oregon grew by 20% in the last five years. More and more farmland is being converted to urban uses or hobby farms. These land use changes will undoubtedly impact the Deschutes River, and whether those impacts are positive or negative depends on choices being made today. As demand for irrigation water decreases, there is the possibility of transferring that water to urban uses or leaving it in the river for fish. Urban stormwater runoff and agriculture can both negatively impact water quality if improperly managed. But they can also create opportunities for restoration and water quality protection when done right. Noteworthy steps are being taken to restore watershed health in the Deschutes Basin. Soil and water conservation districts, watershed councils and others are working with landowners to improve farming and conservation practices, and water users are allocating significant energy and funds toward water conservation and efficiency. The City of Bend has become a leader in water conservation and stewardship. Through an aggressive program of water metering, conservation incentives and partnerships, and public education, the city maintained the same peak summer demand in 2003 as compared to 2002, despite 1,000 new service connections. In addition, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is working with local partners to develop a Total Maximum Daily Load for the Deschutes River.

Returning Water to the River

Rivers need water. This fact seems obvious, yet Oregon water law permits landowners and irrigators to own rights to more water than our rivers actually carry, causing parts of the Deschutes and many other rivers to nearly run dry during the summer months. The Deschutes River Conservancy (DRC), a nonprofit organization in Central Oregon, is working to address this issue. The DRC Leasing Program pays water rights holders who are not using all of their water to lease the water back into the river, or to permanently purchase the water for in-stream water rights. This can provide an incentive for water conservation and irrigation efficiency projects. To date, the DRC has restored 111 cubic feet per second (cfs) of stream flow through conservation, 6 cfs through water transfers, and in 2006 they restored 93 cfs of stream flow to the Deschutes and its tributaries through water leases. Of course, buying water rights requires funding, and grants from the Columbia Basin Water Transactions Program and the federal government have been critical to the DRC's success.


Jim and Deb Marshall sold their Central Oregon Irrigation District water rights to the DRC, keeping 0.5 cfs of water in the middle Deschutes during the peak summer months. They participated in the first permanent water right transfer between the DRC and an irrigation district, laying the groundwork for future agreements. © Deschutes River Conservancy


Browse Oregon's other major rivers:

  1. Columbia
  2. Grande Ronde
  3. John Day
  4. Malheur
  5. Owyhee
  6. Rogue
  7. Snake
  8. Umpqua
  9. Willamette

Pollutants in the Deschutes

Deschutes River Data

Local Resources - Deschutes River

Crook County Soil and Water Conservation District (Prineville) | (541) 447-3548

Crooked River Watershed Council (Prineville) | (541) 447-3548

Deschutes Basin Land Trust (Bend) | (541) 330-0017 |

Deschutes River Conservancy (Bend) | (541) 382-4077 |

Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District (Redmond) | (541) 923-4358 ext. 101

Upper Deschutes Watershed Council (Bend) | (541)382-6102 |

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