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Conserving Water for Farmers & Fish on the Grande Ronde

Getting conservation on-the-ground through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program

View the interactive StoryMap version of this story here

There’s a saying in the West—whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting. Farmers, ranchers and wildlife all depend on it, though sometimes it seems there’s never enough.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and local partners are on a mission to relieve some of the pressure and make the most of every drop in Union County, Oregon.

Thanks to funding from USDA's Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), local partners have ramped up assistance to farmers and ranchers in the Grande Ronde River Watershed. Their overarching goal is to help private landowners maximize water efficiency for local agriculture while also improving salmon habitat.

And ultimately, the project supports the recovery of endangered salmon, steelhead, and bull trout populations that inhabit the river.

Grande Ronde River view with Mike Burton steelhead - photo by ODFW Linear irrigation sprinkler

Pictured from left to right: District Conservationist Mike Burton standing on the banks of the Grande Ronde River. A steelhead, photo by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. A new linear irrigation system installed in the Grande Ronde watershed with assistance from NRCS.

The lead partner is the Union Soil and Water Conservation District. Other partners include the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Grande Ronde Model Watershed, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Department of Forestry, USDA Farm Service Agency, NRCS, and private landowners in the area.

Together, these partners offer technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers in the watershed to help them perform conservation activities on private land.

Irrigation Upgrades help keep more water in the river

One of the primary activities taking place on farms through this project is upgrading irrigation systems to improve water use efficiency.

Rob Beck is one of several participating farmers. He and his family have farmed their piece of the Grande Ronde Valley for seven generations. It’s a diverse operation that raises feed and seed crops and cattle. Rob describes himself as an environmentalist and a businessman.

“Conservation and economics go hand-in-hand,” Rob says. “Efficiency in a system allows it to grow and sustain.”

Thanks to this project, nearly all their wheel irrigation lines have been converted to pivot and linear irrigation systems. The switch will reduce their irrigation water and energy consumption by 30 percent. The new systems also require less manual labor to operate.

“We can irrigate more land with less power and water," Rob said. "The efficiency lets us send more water back into the river.”

Rob also considers the larger economic benefit of a project like this. Throughout the valley, new pivots gleam in the afternoon sun while decommissioned wheel lines hunker along the fences. Each replacement represents stimulus in the local economy.

“When you look at economic development, communities should look at where they’re already strong,” Rob says. “Double the irrigation projects in this county, and quadruple the economy.”

Conservation is central to the sustainability of Rob's operation. "No organic matter leaves the farm that isn't paid for," he says. "That's my grandchildren's and great-grandchildren's organic matter."
And it's true, nothing goes to waste. The farm grazes cattle on the dense residue and stubble that remains after a crop harvest. They also pelletize the residue to save the nutritious feed for later. When cattle graze, they cycle nutrients and enrich the soil with manure for the next crop.

But project partners aren’t only focused on irrigation. All activity, from the river to the ridge top, impacts the water. That's why the project is also offering assistance for other conservation activities such as removing barriers to fish passage, installing fencing to keep livestock out of the river, and helping ranchers develop a prescribed grazing strategy. All of these practices result in cleaner water flowing to the river.

“This project has helped farmers advance conservation on their farms and operate more efficiently,” says Jim Webster, district manager for Union SWCD. "It's a win-win for farmers and fish."


Story by Robert Hathorne.

Published August 2019 by NRCS Oregon.