The John Day

A quilt of blue shadows and rust-colored hills, trees and tributaries is stitched together by the second longest free-flowing river in the continental United States. Its hillsides and rock cliffs, verdant vegetation and dry sagebrush, skies and depths are steeped in history and hold rarities. And beyond its natural value, the river gives life to a vibrant ranching community. The Freshwater Trust’s (TFT) water quantity work in the John Day supports the environmental and economic legacy of this place.

TFT began its work here in 1995 when the organization was still a water trust. Understanding the value of the water for the steelhead and Chinook, and the fourth and fifth generation ranching families, TFT brings to the table solutions that don’t pit one against the other. Some partners work with us 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.

During 2019, TFT implemented 17 deals, and working together, they all protected more than 18,000 gallons per minute. A highlight of the year was a new 10-year lease signed with a landowner owning property along Reynolds Creek, a critical cold-water source to the Upper John Day River.

“We strategically seek out creeks that supply cold water to the system and would be particularly valuable to protect, but we also look for landowners who are willing to make longer term agreements with us,” said Meg Belais, program operations leader at TFT. “The new lease has both.”

Belais is currently in pursuit of new water deals on priority tributaries and the upper mainstem of the John Day and working to convert existing leases to long-term or permanent leases. In addition to leasing, TFT has had success preventing fish kills and ensuring enough water flows through the system during the hottest and driest days by building a program founded upon existing data-driven models that combine streamflow and climate information to forecast water temperatures. When the model predicts water temperatures to increase to a degree harmful for native fish, an alert allows irrigators to prevent additional water from being removed. TFT first used this type of model with great success to prevent fish kills during unusually hot days in Fifteenmile Creek, a tributary of the Columbia River. Started in 2013, nearly 20 irrigators are participants in that program, which is now administered by Wasco County Soil and Water Conservation District.

By the end of 2020, Belais and the rest of the team at TFT will also have completed a feasibility study, funded by the Oregon Department of Water Resources, to identify ditch and on-farm irrigation upgrade projects that will save additional water. The results will guide funding to the highest priority projects with the greatest quantified impact.

“Data is at the heart of all our decision making, whether improving water quality or quantity,” said Belais. “Information yields impacts.”


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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.