$130,000 grant awarded to improve stream temperatures in the John Day Basin

June 18, 2018

Recent funding from the Bella Vista Foundation will help The Freshwater Trust (TFT) strategically plan restoration actions to make stream temperatures more hospitable for native fish and generally improve ecosystem function in the Middle Fork John Day River.

The Bella Vista Foundation’s Ecosystem Restoration Program focuses on protecting, restoring, and revitalizing five watershed ecosystems in California and Oregon. The Foundation has been a strong supporter of TFT’s work in the John Day basin for over a decade.

High stream temperatures are a limiting factor for fish in the John Day. Restoration and conservation actions – such as increasing streamflow through partnerships with landowners, replanting streambanks with native trees and improving channel form and function – can moderate temperatures. Strategically planning the locations and sequencing of these efforts can maximize their benefits.

Funding from the Bella Vista Foundation will help TFT complete the analysis and modeling needed to plan projects that improve stream temperatures in the Middle Fork John Day. The grant will also support a monitoring study on the Upper John Day River, monitoring and adaptive management of past projects in the basin, and ongoing engagement with the John Day Basin Partnership.

“The John Day has been a priority area for the organization for years,” said Marley Gaddis, grants director with TFT. “This next phase of work will involve collecting data to support more informed project planning moving forward.”

Spanning more than 8,000 square miles, the John Day is one of the largest watersheds in Oregon and bigger than the states of Massachusetts, Delaware, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey. The area encompasses four subwatersheds and 120 tributaries.

Since 1997, TFT has leased water rights with 33 farmers and ranchers in the region to reserve millions of gallons of water.

TFT is focused on the Upper Middle Fork John Day subbasin. Home to spring Chinook, summer steelhead, and bull trout, the Middle Fork is a high priority for restoration in the Columbia Basin. Collaborations between the U.S. Forest Service, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, local landowners, TFT and many other organizations promote a full suite of restoration actions.

“We’re about to determine where we and other partners can do more good work in the Middle Fork, and in a more prioritized fashion,” said Spencer Sawaske, hydrologist with TFT. “And the monitoring efforts will allow us to have a better understanding of the ways that things like streamflow, water temperature and instream habitat are responding to restoration work in the basin.”

The current conditions in the basin are indicative of what many watersheds in the West will likely trend towards in a warming climate. Hot, dry summers and significant agricultural demands reduce flows and raise water temperatures, shrinking available refuge for fish.

“This place has some of the last remaining populations of wild Columbia Chinook and steelhead,” said Sawaske. “Protecting them will mean maintaining the genetic legacy of salmon and steelhead in this part of the country. That’s pretty amazing.”

TFT has worked in the John Day since 1997. Most of this work centers upon leases with farmers and ranchers to keep more water in rivers during key summer times when fish need it the most. During the summer of 2017, over 30 cubic feet per second or 13,000 gallons of water was protected instream thanks to these agreements.

In addition to the basin scale planning, TFT also recently received funding from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board to develop an alert system to notify irrigators when water temperatures are forecast to be lethal to fish. Irrigators will then have the option to either continue irrigating or cease diverting and be compensated for keeping more water in the river.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for these issues,” said Sawaske “It’s about tackling them from a number of collaborative angles and being precise and targeted about what actions are occurring and where. This funding gives us a chance to do this in a way that will ultimately expedite the protection and restoration of this ecosystem.”