Grant lays foundation for alert system to protect fish

June 14, 2018

The Freshwater Trust (TFT) received nearly $25,000 in funding from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) to build the infrastructure for an alert program to protect salmon, steelhead and trout from lethal water temperatures in the Middle Fork John Day River.

The Middle Fork is a 73-mile tributary of the North Fork John Day with headwaters in northeast Oregon’s Blue Mountains.

Low stream flows and high water temperatures have been a deadly combination for the Middle Fork’s fish populations. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife documented notable adult spring Chinook kills stemming from elevated water temperature events in 2007, 2013 and 2015.

To help reduce the frequency of lethal events, TFT is collecting data and developing a predictive model for an alert system that will notify local irrigators when water temperatures are predicted to be high enough to kill cold-water fish species in the basin.

TFT aided in the creation of a similar and award-winning program called FAST, or Fifteenmile Action to Stabilize Temperature, for Fifteenmile Creek, a 54-long tributary of the Columbia River.

When the model predicts stream temperatures lethal to threatened steelhead — 72 degrees or higher — at two or more sites for two or more days, the locally based flow restoration coordinator initiates an automatic phone alert to irrigators, notifying them of a need to reduce diversions and keep more water instream.

“This is similar to how the alert would function for the Middle Fork John Day,” said Spencer Sawaske, hydrologist with TFT. “This type of program has proven successful, and we’re hopeful about replicating similar outcomes here.”

Funding from OWEB will support the purchase, installation and operation of a real-time water temperature sensor and the development of a model that can be used to accurately forecast lethal water temperature conditions days before they occur. The sensor will be installed on property owned by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs of Oregon, a partner in this effort, to gather the needed baseline data.

During the first year of the FAST alert system, at least seven irrigators curtailed water diversions during alerts to help fish survive those critically hot days. In 2014, that number jumped to 10 irrigators. TFT found a modeled temperature reduction of 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit from the increased flow. In 2017, there weren’t any fish kills, despite a temperature alert spanning 14 days in early August.

While important, these systems are intended to be temporary, serving as a contingency plan for excessive heat during summer months until the long-term benefits of other restoration and conservation projects are felt.

To that end, since 1997, TFT has worked with local partners to improve habitat conditions by planting streamside vegetation along the Middle Fork. An extensive planting campaign is planned between 2019 and 2021 on the upper Middle Fork. During the 2018 irrigation season, TFT will have more than 6,000 gallons of water protected in the upper Middle Fork.

“The alert system is just one more tool in our toolbox and a piece of the broader picture happening throughout the basin,” said Sawaske. “It’s complementary to the other elements happening on the ground, and we’re grateful to OWEB for valuing this place as much as we do.”

#John Day River Basin    #Middle Fork John Day River