Salmon, ranchers win in deal
LOSTINE — Zigzagging between jagged Wallowa Mountain peaks, the Lostine River beckons salmon with some of the finest habitat in Oregon. But in dry summers, ranch irrigators reduce miles of the river to a trickle. Threatened chinook that fight 600 miles from the ocean past eight hydropower dams in the Columbia and Snake rivers run into an impassable barrier just before reaching their near-pristine spawning grounds.
This year –despite another withering drought –salmon found the going easier. More than 100 ranchers who rely on the river found a way to keep water gushing over its boulder-strewn course through the hottest, driest days of August and September. The return of spring chinook, from a low of 13 fish in 1999, shot past 800 this year –the second highest total since the Nez Perce Tribe began a restoration effort in the 1990s.
An agreement brokered by the nonprofit Oregon Water Trust and supported by dollars from the federal Bonneville Power Administration offered simple terms: payment of as much as $180,000 for leaving a crucial volume of water in the river. It left irrigators to decide how best to ration water. A neutral party, the Oregon Water Resources Department, kept track of stream flow. The program is an expensive, short-term fix. But ranchers and conservationists, including some of the harshest critics of water policy, consider the Lostine River deal a milestone. Not only have salmon benefited, but potential adversaries are cooperating rather than filing lawsuits and calling federal agents.
Water rights dating to the 19th century in many Oregon rivers overwhelm available flows in late summer –when mountains give up the last of their snowmelt and demand for irrigation runs strong. The lack of cold-flowing water has complicated rebuilding salmon runs that were pushed toward extinction by a history of over-fishing and habitat destruction.
“A project like this shows that when people focus on solving the problem they can find creative solutions. It doesn’t have to be a train wreck,” said John DeVoe, executive director of WaterWatch of Oregon. The conservation group, which was not involved in the deal, once named the Lostine one of Oregon’s ten most “desperate” rivers in a scathing critique of irrigation practices.
“We’ve learned that irrigators can get by with less, and that fish people can get by with less,” said Sonny Hagenah, a rancher and hay-grower who oversees the Sheep Ridge and Lostline irrigation ditches. The flow target under the agreement, 15 cubic feet per second, was less than the levels some salmon advocates have deemed necessary.
For a small river –30 miles from its headwaters in the Eagle Cap Wilderness to its mouth on the Wallowa River –the Lostine holds great importance as a local stronghold for salmon and as homeland for the Nez Perce. Coho and chinook runs sustained the Wallowa Band of the Nez Perce. Every summer, they occupied dozens of fishing villages along the river. Chief Joseph, father of the legendary chief who led the tribe in its final conflict with the U.S. government, asked to be buried on a ridge overlooking the Lostine, which the elder Joseph believed would sustain his people forever.
The Lostine’s coho runs slipped into extinction in the 1960s. The shrinking population of Snake River chinook, including the Lostine run, gained federal protection as a threatened species in 1992.
Two years ago, federal authorities accompanied by Oregon State Police agents came to town. “They had their sites on the irrigators,” said Jim Harbeck, a fisheries biologist employed by the Nez Perce. The feds were investigating reports of salmon dying in a dry stretch of the Lostine.
“None of us here wanted to see a Klamath Basin situation,” Harbeck said, referring to events in 2001 when federal officials locked irrigation headgates supplying about 1,200 farms along the Oregon-California border –costing tens of millions of dollars in crop revenues.
On the Lostine, Nez Perce fisheries workers have resorted to moving salmon past dry patches by capturing fish, putting them in tanker trucks and releasing them upriver.
Ranchers, for their part, have built fences along miles of river to keep cattle from eroding banks and fouling the river. They have worked with the tribal fisheries department to arrange pulses of water downriver to temporarily relieve low water conditions blocking salmon.
One year ago, irrigators, the tribe, and a local entity called the Grand Ronde Model Watershed Program began to discuss long-term solutions, such as investing in more efficient irrigation systems. The Oregon Water Trust joined the effort, and proposed an option for the coming irrigation season. The plan gained urgency with drought and expectations of river flows being halved.
Project manager Ryland Moore with the water trust invited dozens of landowners to meet at the local grange hall in early spring. Moore outlined the proposal to lease water to leave in the stream. It hinged on the cooperation of many. Money came from the Columbia Basin Water Transaction Program managed by the National Wildlife Foundation and funded by BPA. The Nez Perce fisheries division offered to use its tanker trucks to fill the cattle troughs of ranchers whose ditches would be dry.
At the conclusion of the meeting, “there were a lot of blank faces. I didn’t know if they thought I was crazy,” Moore said.
Most irrigators are satisfied with results. Leonard Post, head of the Westside ditch, said payments will generally cover costs of lost irrigation. Water cutoffs meant lower yields of forage crops for cattle, and the need to buy feed to make up for it.
The heads of the ditch companies have taken heat from fellow ranchers for the way they parceled out water, in particular for overshooting the stream flow target some weeks, sending water downstream that could have been used on fields.
“You got half your irrigators who are interested in the money. The main motivation is the money. The other half they are wanting to irrigate,” Post said over cheeseburgers and coffee at the Lostine Tavern.
“We should not give ourselves an A,” Hagenah said.
“But we’ve got some basis now, we can use that as a foundation to start from,” chimed in rancher Art Brock, who oversees the Poley Allen ditch. Assuming money is available for the next drought year, the three men figure they’ve learned how to provide enough water for fish with less disruption for irrigators. Meanwhile, they are talking more seriously about long-term solutions, such as consolidating ditch companies, and installing pipes to move water from the river with less lost to seepage and evaporation, freeing up significant amounts to be left in the stream.