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Protecting the Fish: Partnership Works to Keep Water in Critical Streams


Wheat rancher Jim Olson installed irrigation efficiencies to use less water for crops and keep more water in stream for fish

Wheat rancher Jim Olson installed irrigation efficiencies to use less water for crops and keep more water in stream for fish.

Dufur, Ore. – In the unusually hot summer of 2009, streams in Upper Fifteenmile Watershed began to dry up. As the water level fell and creek temperatures rose, fish began to die.  Recognizing the potential for an environmental crisis, landowners and natural resource technical advisors sprang into action to prevent a repeat of the ecological disaster.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Wasco Soil and Water Conservation District (WSWCD), Fifteenmile Watershed Council and other natural resource partners joined forces with landowners to prevent future fish kills by restoring water to Fifteenmile Creek. 

“The partnership is the reason this conservation project has come together so nicely,” says Beau Sorenson, District Conservationist for Wasco County. “Everyone is working together because they care about the environment and want to keep water in the creek.” 

Jim Olson, a Dufur Valley wheat rancher and one of the landowners participating in the partnership to head off future water crises, explained his involvement: “We need to do what we can to fix this. I’m making my irrigation system more efficient in order to save water and help the fish.” 

A pump must be used to irrigate the hill..

A pump must be used to irrigate the hill. The Variable Frequency Drive (VFD) controller has made using a pump more efficient, keeping more water instream for fish and saving power costs for the landowner.

With funding provided by the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Jim has replaced his hand line irrigation system with new, water-saving wheel line irrigation equipment and installed high efficiency rotator sprinklers with pressure regulators.  The new system combines gravity flow and a pump to conserve energy and reduce water consumption.  While a pump may be expensive to power, Jim cooperated with the Oregon Department of Energy to purchase a Variable Frequency Drive (VFD) controller that accommodates a range of irrigation flows throughout the season. The VFD controller allows Jim to use less energy to irrigate, as it adjusts the pump speed to match the minimum pressure and flow required for the sprinklers.

Savings from the VFD are sweetened with rebates from the local power cooperative, Wasco Electrical Cooperative. According to Robert Wallace, executive director of Wyeast Resource Conservation and Development, “The Ag Energy Conservation Rebates are a great way for producers to be more efficient with both water and energy.” Programs are typically offered for Irrigation Sprinkler Hardware, Variable Frequency Drives, Pump Change-outs, and Soil Moisture Monitoring. Benefits beyond water and energy savings include improved crop yields, reduced expenses and improved profits for the landowner. 

The project will increase irrigation efficiency by an estimated 30 percent, keeping the saved water in stream.  That is good news for the steelhead trout that call Fifteenmile Creek home.  The species is currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Jim Olson checks fish ladder at irrigation diversion point on Ramsey Creek

Jim Olson checks fish ladder at irrigation diversion point on Ramsey Creek. System improvements will help raise water levels for steelhead and other fish.

“It’s a pretty big deal when you get a fish kill on a creek where there is an endangered species,” said Kate Conley, Watershed Coordinator for WSWCD.

In addition to steelhead trout, Fifteenmile Creek is home to cutthroat trout and Pacific lamprey, which is an important ceremonial food for Native American tribes in the Columbia River basin.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is also partnering on the project, providing a state-of-the-art fish ladder on Ramsey Creek, and maintaining fish screens at the head of the irrigation diversion ditch to prevent fish from getting pulled out of the creek with the irrigation water.  

Jim is one of the first landowners in Dufur Valley to adopt irrigation practices that will conserve water in Ramsey Creek, a tributary to Fifteenmile Creek. “My goal is to keep the stream flowing all summer long,” Jim said.  Thanks to the assistance from NRCS and the conservation partnership, Jim should be able to do just that.

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