The John Day

The Problem We Are Solving

Free of dams and hatchery fish, the John Day has one of the strongest and most genetically pristine runs of wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia basin. The river and its fish draw thousands to the rural region every year. But it’s also cattle country, and competition for the high quality, cold water is fierce.

As pressures on our water resources grow, especially in the face of a changing climate, TFT partners with landowners on irrigation efficiency upgrades and water deals to ensure the rich legacy of farming and ranching is as protected as the native fish.

How We Are Solving It

Protecting water quantity takes many forms. Users can agree to shorten the length of their irrigation season or withdraw water only when certain minimum flows are met. Others voluntarily lease a portion or all of their water rights. Irrigation efficiency improvements and transferring diversions from small tributaries to larger mainstem rivers also make a difference.

Since 1995, TFT has partnered with nearly three dozen farmers and ranchers to implement a variety of these techniques and keep more water flowing through the John Day. 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.

“THE TRIBES ARE INVALUABLE PARTNERS IN OUR WORK TO PROTECT INSTREAM FLOW.” ‒ MEG BELAIS, RESTORATION PROJECT MANAGER

Reynolds Creek is a critical cold-water source to the Upper John Day River. After a series of single and short-term agreements, TFT is thrilled to have signed a new 10-year water use agreement with key irrigators.

Belais and Sawaske will initiate a widespread campaign to restore late-summer streamflows in the mainstem Upper John Day. Recently collected data show strong correlations between August streamflows and the number of juvenile Chinook.

“WE ARE ALWAYS GOING TO PRESENT OPTIONS THAT MAKE ECONOMIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL SENSE. WHEN BOTH OF THOSE BOXES ARE CHECKED, IT MAKES IT A LOT EASIER TO SAY YES.” ‒ SPENCER SAWASKE, HYDROLOGIST

 

FAQ

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.