The John Day

Why We Work Here

Undammed from its headwaters in the Strawberry Mountains to its confluence with the Columbia, the John Day is the third longest free-flowing river in the contiguous United States. Yet the pulse of this mighty artery and its 120 tributaries coursing through eastern Oregon is never guaranteed, due in part to climate and pressures from the productive agricultural operations around it. The turquoise waters out here too often turn to dry streambeds. 

The John Day encompasses more than 8,000 square miles, stretched between Bend and Baker City. One of the largest watersheds in the state, it’s bigger than Massachusetts, Delaware, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey. The land in this part of eastern Oregon is used for raising beef cattle and growing hay and wheat. 

TFT has worked with 32 farmers and ranchers in the region to keep water in the John Day and its tributaries since 1995. When Bonneville Power Administration began mitigating for its impacts on native fish in 2002 by providing funding for flow restoration projects, TFT’s leasing program in the John Day expanded. 

First, our analysts identify the landowners with the most reliable and impactful water rights in the basin. We do this by combining data and information from a number of publicly available sources. 

Historical recovery and restoration plans and an analysis of the most valuable water rights in the basin help determine where our involvement will make the largest impact for the resource. 

Once we have that information, leasing water rights and improving irrigation efficiency in key places are two ways we ensure working lands and healthy rivers can coexist. This is important during summer when long days, hot air temperatures, and low stream-flows combine to create inhospitable conditions for salmon and steelhead. 

Last year, TFT continued to play a pivotal role as part of the John Day Partnership, an assemblage of nonprofits, watershed councils, tribes, and government agencies working toward the sustainable management of the freshwater resources in the basin. 

The partners worked throughout the year to develop a plan similar to what was developed for the Sandy River basin: a cohesive and comprehensive strategy for funding and prioritizing the most important projects throughout the basin. 

Progress to Date

In 2017, a total of 73,160 gallons per minute of leased water was reserved in Oregon’s streams for fish by TFT. This equals more than 32,000 football fields — including end zones — covered in one foot of water. Approximately 24% of that was with 15 landowners in the John Day Basin. 

“2017 was a year for continuing to stay engaged in efforts already underway,” said Spencer Sawaske, hydrologist with TFT. “The John Day Partnership plan currently being crafted will provide a map for doing a better, more efficient job at protecting water here.”


The John Day is home to some of the largest populations of wild interior Columbia Basin anadromous fish stocks, with no within-basin dams or hatcheries. There is a substantial amount of federal land ownership, while private ownership is dominated by rural agricultural land uses. Limiting factors facing salmon and steelhead stem primarily from land and water management actions, many of which can be corrected. This differs substantially from many other basins in the Northwest burdened by relatively permanent changes to the environment (e.g., dams, large-scale urban development, etc.) and fish populations heavily influenced by hatchery genetics that prohibit quick restoration of fish stocks. Tribal and federal land ownership, along with Bonneville Power’s mitigation requirements, ensure a continued interest and funding source for restoration work in the basin.

Aspects of the current John Day climate are indicative of what many watersheds in the West will likely evolve towards with climate change. Hot, dry summers, coupled with large agricultural water demands, combine to reduce streamflows and raise water temperatures, making conditions inhospitable for cold-water fish. Our work to develop tools and strategies to correct these water supply and use imbalances will not only improve conditions in the John Day, but will provide a suite of tools to help better manage water for fish in a warming West.

In the John Day, we have everything from 1 year agreements to permanent agreements. There really isn’t a typical/average deal. We always hope for an eventual long-term or permanent deal, but sometimes it does not fit with a landowner’s agenda.

Endangered Species Listed mid-columbia summer steelhead and bull trout, spring Chinook salmon, redband and westslope cutthroat trout.

While there are many ways to put water back instream, a lease is the most common. With a full-season lease, TFT and the landowner work together to identify acres of land that the landowner does not wish to irrigate. TFT then applies to the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) to place these water rights instream for 1 to 5 years. The water is protected instream, and the landowner receives compensation to make up for lost production. During the lease, landowners can still engage in dry land farming on the acres. An OWRD Watermaster is responsible for regulating the stream to ensure the instream flows are met during the lease.

Other flow restoration tools include split-season leasing, time-limited transfers, forbearance agreements, source switching, conserved water projects, minimum flow agreements, and permanent transfers. While the tools many vary, TFT always uses cooperative, voluntary market-based approaches to flow restoration work.