Oregon farmers find a cool solution for steelhead

Spring 2014

A new locally developed system for balancing the water needs of farms with the safety of protected steelhead is helping keep temperatures in north-central Oregon’s Fifteenmile Creek cool enough for fish – and will do so even in the heat of the summer.

The first test of the Fifteenmile Action Plan to Stabilize Temperatures (FAST) came at 9:30 a.m. on a warm Thursday last June. Temperatures in the creek just east of The Dalles were predicted to climb dangerously high for the creek’s threatened steelhead. Phones started ringing with an automated message asking irrigators to temporarily reduce their diversions to leave cooler water in the creek for these fish.

At least seven irrigators responded. They cut back diversions so thousands of additional gallons of water remained in the creek. Biologists checking the creek found fish congregating safely in cool, deep pools, a much different result than a fish kill that followed a similar hot spell in 2009.

Scenic view of irrigation on Fifteenmile Creek.

“Agency folks and landowners and everyone else have really come together to make this work,” said Phil Kaser, who farms hay and wheat and heads the Fifteenmile Watershed Council. “It’s a work in progress, but so far we’re moving in the right direction.”

The FAST program emerged after the 2009 fish kill, which raised awareness in the community that irrigators could be held responsible for irrigation activities that may harm fish protected under the Endangered Species Act. They organized workshops with representatives from NOAA Fisheries and state agencies to explore options for keeping water temperatures safe without jeopardizing their state-sanctioned water rights.

“The Watershed Council recognized they wanted to stay out of trouble and do the right thing for fish,” said Anna Buckley, coordinator of the Watershed Council. “We had a lot of people working together on a solution.”

Some farmers were already working with The Freshwater Trust, which used funding from the Bonneville Power Administration to lease water and keep it in the creek for fish. The FAST program built on that with automated email and phone alerts to warn irrigators when creek temperatures may threaten fish and request that they further limit diversions until the danger passes.

A key to FAST is a model developed by Derrek Faber of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The model projects creek temperatures several days in advance. Daily emails advise irrigators of the forecast so they know when conditions may become critical.

“What’s impressive about this is that the local community is being proactive and taking action to avoid problems before they happen,” said Rosemary Furfey, NOAA Fisheries’ Middle Columbia River Steelhead Recovery Coordinator. Last fall, NOAA Fisheries gave Kaser and the Watershed Council a special certificate of appreciation for taking the initiative to develop FAST.

Members of Fifteenmile Watershed Council receive certificate of appreciation from NOAA Fisheries.

Farmers who cut back irrigation last summer received no compensation. This year, organizers hope a grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board will support compensation for those who reduce diversions in case of a temperature alert, said Natasha Bellis of The Freshwater Trust.

While long-term water leases reduce the likelihood of creek temperatures rising to levels that are hazardous to fish, the FAST approach provides a back-up measure that should help protect fish and farmers – just in case.

“Everyone can see the advantage to finding solutions now to avoid problems later,” Bellis said.
“I think we all see this as an example of how things should work.”

Scenic view of Fifteenmile Creek.

All photographs courtesy Fifteenmile Watershed Council.