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.”