John Day Basin: 27 million gallons kept instream

The John Day moves through the upper desert of northeastern Oregon as one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the continental United States. Many of the basin’s 500 miles of streams and rivers boast healthy populations of native fish, large blocks of public land, and community support.

Unfortunately, the basin’s populations of spring Chinook, summer steelhead, bull trout, redband trout, westslope cutthroat trout and pacific lamprey often face low flows and high stream temperatures during summer.

Since 1995, The Freshwater Trust (TFT) has managed a flow leasing program that provides incentives for landowners to leave some of the water typically used for irrigation instream. Since 2012, at least 35 cubic feet per second (cfs) of streamflow has been added to stressed waterways throughout the John Day basin. In 2016, 43 cfs (or 27,791,626 gallons per day) were left in the system and a record number of landowners participated in the program.

In 2014, TFT also began supporting the efforts of the John Day Basin Partnership — a group of 30 organizations working on a coordinated, basin-wide, strategic plan. Our first step was an assessment of how flow conditions can be integrated with other water quality and habitat metrics to identify high priority restoration opportunities.

Over the next two years, TFT will continue to work with the Partnership to set science-based targets for the basin. With support from the Bonneville Power Administration, TFT will also work with landowners to increase flows and lower instream temperatures during summer months on several tributaries, including Reynolds, Rock, Beech and Standard Creeks. Additionally, we have begun integrating other watershed restoration techniques to further enhance our flow work. These include introducing large wood instream, realigning and restoring fish passage, and replanting native trees along the streambanks.

“The John Day is a great place to evaluate new ideas on how to improve flow and habitat,” said Spencer Sawaske, hydrologist. “With a quantified approach, we hope to be a technical resource for all basin partners, improving the efficacy and efficiency of restoration work.”

“This partnership is an example of how a group can collaborate and pursue the most pressing actions and the most ecologically valuable projects.”
-Spencer Sawaske

Spotlight on Reynolds Creek

Hot, dry summers and irrigation withdrawals have resulted in low flows and high water temperatures in Reynolds Creek, a tributary to the Upper John Day near Prairie City. The spring-fed system provides exceptionally cool water to the river and refuge for over-summering adult spring Chinook salmon and federally threatened Mid-Columbia juvenile summer steelhead and bull trout.

Beginning in 2014, TFT partnered with two of the three water diverters on Reynolds Creek to restore flow to the system. Through a variety of voluntary water-use agreements, substantially more water is now left instream to benefit fish than at any time in recent history.

TFT operates three streamflow and temperature gages in the watershed to assess the impacts of the irrigation agreements. The data provide empirical evidence of reductions, due to instream flow increases from the water-use agreement. Mid-season irrigation shutoffs were modeled to have reduced water temperatures by 0.14°C in lower Reynolds Creek.