From conflict to collaboration

July 28, 2016

Web Feature 7.28.16

It’s been another full year of milestones for The Freshwater Trust, and we’re happy to report on them all in our new 2015 annual report. Stay tuned as we feature new articles from the report in the coming weeks. Here’s a first.

Insufficient water threatens the environment, society and the economy. While agriculture and conservation have long been at odds, a “Minimum Flow Agreement” made with farmers and ranchers in Eastern Oregon is a bringing the two sides together for a common goal: Keep more water in the Lostine River.


Eleven years ago, The Freshwater Trust entered a pact to improve habitat in the Lostine River. In 2015, we took stock of what it’s meant.

The Lostine is a defining waterway of northeastern Oregon. Sixteen miles of this tributary to the Wallowa River have been designated as “Wild & Scenic,” a recognition reserved by the U.S. Forest Service for protecting rivers with particular value, such as scenic, recreational or cultural.

Much like the days of old, members of the Nez Perce Tribe still rely on the sacred, homeland waters of the Lostine for sustenance and actively work to preserve its place in the world. The Lostine River also supplies irrigation to thousands of acres of mostly forage and grain crops, keeping a small rural economy alive and well.

Our “Minimum Flow Agreement” compensates irrigators to maintain stream flow in the river from late August through September. More than 70 farmers and ranchers made the voluntary commitment, and the results of their cooperation on land can be seen under water.

In 2015, more than 1,000 natural and hatchery adults were documented entering the Lostine. This is in stark contrast from the mere 13 observed spawning in 1999.

“This is what we call a true biological response,” said Caylin Barter, flow restoration director with The Freshwater Trust. “This agreement essentially assured there would be more water in the river during the times when fish needed it the most.”

While many factors contribute to the uptick in fish response over the years, including a suite of habitat actions implemented by restoration partners, a hatchery supplementation program initiated by the Nez Perce Tribe, and varying oceanic conditions, there is no denying that wetting what was once a dry river and allowing salmon to migrate to pristine spawning grounds has played an integral role in recovery.

For decades, conservation and agriculture have been at odds, failing to recognize that insufficient water doesn’t only harm the environment; it threatens the future of agriculture itself. From years of conflict we have come, to years of innovation and collaboration we must go. Those participating in the agreement maintained an average 6,732 gallons per minute (GPM) in 2015. In 2016, the minimum flow ramps up to 8,000 GPM. And for 2017, it steps up again to almost 9,000 GPM.

“Healthy rivers and working lands can – and must – coexist,” said Barter. “Individual actions on a landscape add up to either big problems or big solutions. This agreement is a testament to the fact that the sum of our actions is greater than our individual parts.”

(Funding for flow restoration is provided through Columbia Basin Water Transaction Program)

Every new year presents more challenges. With the support of people like you, we’ll be prepared for every one of them coming our way. Keep us doing more great work.

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