Permanent split season agreement
The Freshwater Trust reached a landmark agreement with the owners of Austin Ranch to stop irrigating on July 20th each year in perpetuity by altering their water rights. The project will preserve 10 cubic feet per second of water in the Middle Fork John Day River and Clear and Vinegar Creeks when it is needed for fish. The instream benefits are likely to extend into the North Fork John Day River, some 70 miles downstream.
The John Day Basin hosts some of the most important wild fish runs in the Columbia River system. However, fish populations are limited by low water levels partly due to irrigation withdrawals. This project will increase available fish habitat and improve water quality by adding cool water to the river for summer steelhead, spring chinook salmon and bull trout.
The owners of Austin Ranch, Pat and Hedy Voigt, are third generation ranchers on the Middle Fork. “We think we’ll be running about 20% fewer cattle, but that still works for us. At the same time, we’re putting a significant amount of water back instream to do something for the resource,” says Pat, who also serves as president of the Soil and Water Conservation District in Grant County.
"I give The Freshwater Trust a lot of credit. They came to us with an attitude of wanting to help and they displayed a great deal of respect for agriculture."
— Pat Voight, Landowner
The instream flow improvement will also complement roughly $10 million in other habitat protection, restoration and management practices invested in the Middle Fork by local partners over the last 15 years.
Seeing results through monitoring
Restoring almost 10 cfs of water to the headwaters of the Middle Fork John Day River is certain to make improvements in the overall health of the watershed. Through a grant provided by Bonneville Environmental Foundation, The Freshwater Trust began in 2005 a long term monitoring program that evaluates changes in macroinvertebrate communities, available habitat, water temperature and fish distribution. In 2005, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife found the highest concentrations of spring chinook salmon redds (spawning nests) on Austin Ranch and immediately downstream.