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Restoring Clean Water in the Fletcher Gulch Watershed

Grassroots effort led by farmers modernizes irrigation water delivery, improves water quality

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Farmers don't just do things for fun. They need to have a motivation to change before they take action.

That's what Charlie Barlow says when speaking about conservation on his farm near the small community of Nyssa, Oregon, located about 20 miles southwest of Ontario in the Fletcher Gulch Watershed in Malheur County.

Charlie Barlow - Farmer, Fletcher Gulch Watershed

Caption: Third-generation farmer Charlie Barlow produces a variety of crops at Barlow Farms near Nyssa, Oregon, including wheat, corn, alfalfa, seed crops and sugar beets. He and his family embrace a practical, conservation-minded vision that has helped the community transform its irrigation water delivery and significantly improve water quality in the Fletcher Gulch watershed. NRCS photo by Tracy Robillard.

Charlie is a third-generation farmer who started farming in the Fletcher Gulch area in 1977. His family grows a variety of crops including wheat, corn, alfalfa, seed crops and sugar beets.

"Where the environmental and conservation movement becomes real is where the actions are being taken," Charlie said. "And without that piece, it would all just be talk."

For the past two decades, the Barlow family has not only talked the talk, but they rallied support from their neighbors and from multiple government agencies to address a serious problem in their watershed: cleaning up the water.

The Fletcher Gulch Watershed is located about 20 miles southwest of Ontario, Oregon, and consists of 6,500 acres. The lower half of the watershed is irrigated cropland, and the upper half is rangeland. The drainage is approximately 6.5 miles long and enters the Old Owyhee Ditch, a tributary to the Owyhee and Snake rivers.

The Problem: Poor Water Quality

"We knew we had a problem with water quality, but there was fear of airing the dirty laundry," Charlie said. "We didn't want to tell people we had a problem."

In the late 1980’s, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) identified the Owyhee River near Fletcher Gulch as having excessive levels of sediment and nutrients. Water testing showed high concentrations of phosphorus and total suspended solids that exceeded the target concentrations for the Snake River.

A major contributor to these problems was soil erosion caused by irrigation, and the resulting runoff from fields into the river. On row cropped fields, as much as 60 tons per acre per year of soil was lost forever due to erosion.

"Water management was a challenge," Charlie said. "We could see that there was a need to look at ways to be more responsible for our water use and water quality."

silty drain water

Photo Caption: Silty water drains from a tail pipe of a flood/furrow irrigation system, washing soil and sediments into the river. Sights like this are now rare in the Fletcher Gulch watershed thanks to irrigation modernization projects by farmers and local conservation agencies. NRCS photo by Tracy Robillard.

The Culprit: Flood-Furrow Irrigation

Historically, farms in this area relied on traditional flood and furrow irrigation to deliver water to fields. This system relied on concrete, open ditches (laterals) to divert water from the Owyhee Reservoir to a series of earthen canals. The earthen canals were dug on a slope in the fields so that water would naturally flow down the drainage to flood irrigate the crops. Farmers controlled the flow of water by operating flow control valves along the lateral diversion points.

Furrow irrigation

Photo Caption: Water flows to a series of earthen ditches where crops are flood/furrow irrigated. NRCS photos by Tracy Robillard.

While this method of irrigation was common practice for several generations, over time it created problems for water quality. It eroded the soil and washed excess sediment into the river. It allowed nutrients and pesticides from fields to leach into run-off water.

It created other problems besides water quality, too. It was very labor intensive for farmers to go out and manually turn the water on and off to the various canals. Maintenance was costly and difficult. And it required more energy use and costs due to pumping water up slope.

A Champion for Change

Charlie's brother, Mike Barlow, saw the problem and was determined to make a change.

Mike knew that if he gathered the right people and resources, they could modernize their irrigation infrastructure and leverage new technologies such as sprinkler systems and pressurized pipe.

"Mike had a vision and he was relentless with it," Charlie said. "He dragged us all along with him."

Mike had close ties with the Farm Bureau and related groups. He was a former president of the Oregon Association of Conservation Districts and a board member of the Malheur County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD).

"The character trait about Mike that made this all happen is the fact that he’d go out and try it," Charlie said.

Mike reached out to his local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office, and he brought other partners to the table including the Malheur County SWCD, the Owyhee Watershed Council, and the Owyhee Irrigation District.

With their help, Mike installed his first sprinkler system 17 years ago. Over the years, his neighbors watched and wanted to get involved. The partnership continued to build, and within a few years the Fletcher Gulch Watershed was on a path to transformation.

Mike Barlow passed away suddenly of a heart attack in 2008. His legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of the farmers he impacted, and through the lasting improvements he helped make on the land.

Center pivot irrigation at Barlow FarmCaption: Center pivot irrigation sprinklers deliver water more efficiently and contribute to less sediment run-off at Barlow Farm. NRCS photo by Tracy Robillard.

The Solution: Pressurized Pipe and On-Farm Sprinklers

The solution was two-fold: 1) Pipe the main lateral and 2) convert to on-farm irrigation sprinklers.

Thanks to grant funding from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and the Bureau of Reclamation, the main lateral was converted to an underground pipeline. The Malheur County SWCD, Owyhee Watershed Council, and Owyhee Irrigation District were pivotal in designing the pipeline and securing federal grant funding for materials and construction.

"These pipelines really flip things upside down," said Jay Chamberlin, Owyhee Irrigation District manager. "We are using water much more efficiently. It used to be that the District controlled more flow. Now the farmers have more control and can make those decisions on the farm."

There are multiple benefits to piping. It keeps more water in the system because water is not lost to evaporation and ground seepage that occurs with an open-ditch. It eliminates poor water quality issues due to soil loss and sedimentation. It reduces labor and maintenance. And because it's pressurized by gravity, the pipeline eliminates most of the need for pumping, so energy usage and costs are significantly reduced.

And for farmers, perhaps the most significant benefit comes during times of drought.

"The (water) resource is not a constant here, but what we have noticed with the conversion of these pipelines is that in those dry years we've been able to get a longer growing season and our demands are different," Jay said.

To further capitalize on water savings from the pipeline, NRCS offered financial assistance to farmers to convert from flood irrigation to sprinklers, also called center pivots, through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

Center pivots utilize pressurized water to irrigate crops from overhead and are much more efficient than flood irrigation. They practically eliminate the soil erosion and sedimentation issue. They save farmers time and money because they are programmable to provide exactly the right amount of water at the right time.

Irrigation sprinkler view at Barlow Farm

Caption: Irrigation sprinkler systems, also called center pivots, deliver pressurized water at the right place at the right time. Image by Story Gorge.

"NRCS has been a great resource for us throughout the years with different projects, and we’ve always worked with them," Charlie said. "But the change of the sprinklers was something new for this area."

It required a steep learning curve, working through technical issues, and most importantly, a shift in mindset.

We started out 100 percent furrow-irrigated 17 years ago," Charlie said. "Our entire farm is sprinkled as of last spring."

A total of 17 farm families including the Barlow's have converted to sprinklers, collectively making a measurable impact on water quality that is supported by sampling data.

Project Outcomes

According to data from the Oregon Department of Agriculture, average sediment concentrations in the watershed have been reduced by 97% from 2008 to 2018.

Also during that time period, the average flow discharge from Fletcher Gulch was reduced by about 80 percent, which shows more water is being kept on the farm and in the soil instead of being lost to run-off. Annual average total suspended solids concentrations have decreased by more than 90 percent.

Additionally, the data show a 50 percent reduction in annual average orthophosphorus concentrations, and a 25 percent reduction in annual average total phosphorus concentrations.

Linda Rowe, district manager with the Malheur SWCD, was instrumental in starting the water sampling effort, with financial support from Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Pacific Northwest POB Laboratory.

"It started with a sample in a drain identified by Mike Barlow, as he was convinced that converting to sprinkler irrigation would improve the water quality of the drain," Linda said. "We can show that we made a difference in water quality in our community and our watershed."

Continuous Improvement

"What's really exciting is that the conversion to sprinklers are changing the agricultural landscape in ways that benefit more than water quality," said Lynn Larsen, NRCS District Conservationist.

The next step for farmers is to maximize the water holding capacity of their soil by focusing on soil health practices such as planting cover crops and using no-till planting systems. Charlie Barlow is already taking that next step with help from NRCS.

"Twenty-plus years ago, you would have seen bare fields and bare soil in the wintertime," Lynn said. "Now producers have the opportunity to keep more cover throughout the season, and they can change their tillage operations and their residue management. They also have opportunities to grow more varieties of crops to diversify their operations and reduce risk. It's a huge success for everyone involved."

Project Partners

  • USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • Malheur County Soil and Water Conservation District
  • Owyhee Watershed Council
  • Owyhee Irrigation District
  • Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board
  • Bureau of Reclamation
  • Oregon Department of Agriculture
  • Oregon Department of Environmental Quality
  • Private landowners

Written by Tracy Robillard, Public Affairs Specialist

Natural Resources Conservation Service

Published January 2020