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Central Oregonians file more objections to Thornburgh resort proposal, but some feel helpless

Emily Cureton Cook
Emily Cureton Cook

A developer says his proposed destination resort in Central Oregon will actually benefit the environment. Opponents say it exemplifies injustice in Oregon water law.

The developer of a proposed destination resort in Central Oregon’s high desert recently applied for a state permit to pump nearly 30,000 gallons a day from wells.

That’s a tiny fraction, less than 1%, of the amount of water that the fully built Thornburgh resort has proposed it could use by 2035. By then, more than half of the water could be used to irrigate golf courses, according to a plan filed with state water regulators over the summer.

The project’s developer, Kameron DeLashmutt, told OPB this week the project backers are committing to scaling back its water demand back by a third, and have eliminated plans for one of three golf courses.

“We are working on other significant and groundbreaking sustainability and conservation efforts and initiatives right now,” DeLashmutt said in an email.

Marketing materials promise luxury accommodations and “intimate lakes,” even as the legal battles over Thornburgh’s water sources continue. The Oregon Department of Water Resources is accepting public comments on the proposed resort’s latest water rights application through March 9.

Opponents say the process exemplifies how state water laws don’t protect rural homeowners, or fish and wildlife. DeLashmutt said the project will actually benefit the environment, a claim that’s getting pushback from tribal officials and many others.

Heavy equipment operators work at the Thornburgh resort site in Central Oregon's Deschutes County. June 22, 2022.
Emily Cureton Cook
Heavy equipment operators work at the Thornburgh resort site in Central Oregon's Deschutes County. June 22, 2022.

“Thornburgh has worked with leading experts to craft a plan that protects the resource by reducing usage and benefiting fish and wildlife,” DeLashmutt said in a written statement.

Located near the Deschutes River between Bend and Redmond, the roughly 2,000-acre Thornburgh site is often surrounded by drilling rigs punching wells through layers of rock, but not for the resort’s water supply.

David Arnold, who lives less than three miles from the site, can rattle off the names of half a dozen neighbors who’ve had to deepen their home wells in recent years.

“The neighbor across the street, just in the last two weeks,” Arnold said.

He worries he’ll be next, and that deepening his home’s only water supply, or digging a new well, could cost upwards of $30,000.

In this part of Deschutes County, the aquifer level in monitored wells has been shrinking more than a foot per year for decades, and more rural residents are grappling with the consequences, as OPB reported last year.

Arnold has made an effort to engage with many public comment periods about Thornburgh’s plans over the years. But he’s starting to lose steam.

“What good does protesting do if your county commissioners and your state representatives don’t want to listen to the public?” he said.

Lately, the Oregon Water Resources Department has put roadblocks in front of the resort, and this year the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs pressed for more time to review its plan for conserving fish and wildlife.

“The Tribe believes that there is a technical disagreement regarding whether the Applicant’s water supply plan demonstrates the benefits that it claims,” Warm Springs Natural Resources Branch general manager Austin Smith, Jr. wrote to Deschutes County officials in January.

Plans for the Thornburgh resort over the years have included three golf courses, private lakes, more than 400 overnight lodging units and nearly 1,000 single family homes on nearly 2,000-acres.
MacGregor Campbell /
A map shows the footprint of the nearly 2,000 acre Thornburgh resort site in relation to Redmond, Oregon.

Last summer, the state water department denied a key step in Thornburgh’s quest for a much larger permit to use water, a decision DeLashmutt is appealing. If he’s successful, the permit could authorize Thornburgh to use up to 6 million gallons of water per day, though DeLashmutt claims he would take much less if approved.

In various reviews, regulators refused to establish a new water right, calling these requests “detrimental to the public interest,” and saying “water will likely not be available within the capacity of the resource.”

But the latest ask — for those 30,000 gallons of water — triggered a different review process. It’s a water rights transfer.

“Transfers provide one of the biggest loopholes in Oregon’s water laws as far as protecting the environment, and rivers and fish are suffering for it,” said Kimberley Priestley, a policy analyst with WaterWatch.

Transfers allow people to buy water rights that are already established and apply them in new locations.

Aiken Well Drilling operators bore a domestic well at a new rural home site about ten miles east of Bend, Ore., July 5, 2022.
Emily Cureton Cook /
Drillers work to bore a domestic well at a new rural home site about ten miles east of Bend, Oregon. July 5, 2022.

When state regulators review these transactions, unlike what happens when a new water right is established, the criteria are narrow and don’t include environmental or public arguments.

“This law allows new developments, including destination resorts, to transfer old water rights to fuel new developments without adhering to modern-day environmental sideboards,” Priestley said in an email.

In this case, DeLashmutt wants to permanently take a claim to water that was established long ago at a former tree farm on the outskirts of Bend, about 14 miles away from the resort site.

The Tree Farm’s coveted senior water right was privately auctioned off in 2020, with DeLashmutt and another developer outbidding the city of Bend.

Thornburgh would not truck the actual water. It wants to use the senior water rights authority to drill new wells at the resort location. The state already approved the water right to be used at Thornburgh temporarily for five years, noting in one review that under Oregon law, groundwater rights are moved to new locations without considering what’s in the public interest.

Last year, the other bidder — KC Development Group — overcame a legal challenge funded by a neighbor, and secured some 15,000 gallons per day. That water will be used by Tanager, a gated neighborhood with two private lakes and 21 homesites just outside Bend. Its residents will have “exclusive access to private wakeboarding, water skiing, hiking, fishing & more!” according to the company’s website.

A privately owned water ski lake at the Tanager subdivision near Bend has sparked years of lawsuits between neighbors, and an ongoing legal challenge against state regulators who approved transferring a groundwater right for the lake in 2021.
Emily Cureton Cook /
A privately owned water ski lake at the Tanager subdivision near Bend sparked years of lawsuits between neighbors. October 9, 2021.

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Emily Cureton Cook is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Emily is the former producer of the Jefferson Exchange on JPR and has contributed award-winning programming to Georgia Public Broadcasting. Emily is a graduate of the University of Texas in Austin where she earned degrees in history, studio art and Russian.