©2002 Cascadia Times
10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry
4 John Day - Oregon
trouble for wild fish
ravage the headwaters, while ranchers and the Bureau
of Land Management dewater the lower river.
fish, this equation has meant trouble for a century.
spawning and rearing is in the headwaters and is
affected by livestock first and foremost,"
says Bill Marlett, executive director of the Oregon
Natural Desert Association.
got too many people taking too much water out of
the river, and not enough is left in stream for
fish, wildlife, recreation and other instream needs,"
says Kimberley Priestley of Waterwatch, an Oregon
group that monitors such things.
the John Day, most irrigators don't measure their
water use. State officials can't manage the system,
because they have no idea how much water is going
out. But at U.S.G.S. stations along the river, they
can tell how little water is staying in the river.
It's not much. The BLM says the total water diversions
permitted for the basin account for 76 percent of
the basins average annual discharge.
with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
say the John Day's endangered salmon need ten-fold
increases in water flows to meet their needs. Instead,
the water is being diverted onto fields for growing
cattle feed. Even the BLM itself withdraws water
to grow cattle feed on its lands. It could legally
transfer the rights to that water to state agencies
for instream flows to protect fish.
tragedy is that the John Day is home to one of the
few remaining exclusively wild runs of spring Chinook
salmon and summer steelhead trout in the world.
The John Day is distinguished by the largest and
most diverse native fish populations in Oregon,
including redband trout, bull trout, and west slope
500 miles of undammed waters, the John Day is the
second-longest free-flowing river in the continental
United States. With some of its headwaters protected
as wilderness, the John Day seems like the ideal
place to nurture wild salmon. And it would be it
weren't for grazing-caused damage in most of its
headwaters and dewatering the lower river.
the headwaters, the river and its tributaries are
much shallower, wider, warmer, and have fewer rearing
pools than did it could.
water temperatures upwards of 75 degrees led the
late grazing reform advocate Denzel Ferguson to
observe, "The only way a steelhead can make
it down the Middle Fork of the John Day is on a
motorcycle at midnight."
the John Day basin, some 90 percent of the landscape
is grazed. There are 119 federal grazing allotments,
including 64 in Wild and Scenic segments. Most Wild
and Scenic segments suffer from severe erosion and
sedimentation caused by grazing, extreme fluctuations
in water temperature, poor water quality, and degraded
habitat, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
Yet the BLM allowed grazing in these segments until
it forced by an Oregon Natural Desert Association
lawsuit in the late 1990s to get the cows out of
there to deal with the impacts of cows on the Wild
and Scenic reaches of the John Day. "Even then,
the BLM persists in doing everything it can to keep
grazing on the river," says Bill Marlett, ONDA's
Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality says
the John Day and many of its tributaries fail to
meet state water quality standards, mainly due to
excessive summer-time water temperatures caused
by cows trampling streambanks and denuding shorelines
of shade-giving vegetation.
the well-documented connection between livestock
grazing and the demise of the John Day's wilderness,
wildlife, and recreational values, the BLM has done
almost nothing to improve this river's chances of
recovery," says Marlett.
June 2000, the BLM issued its long-awaited "Wild
and Scenic" management plan for the John Day.
The BLM said it could have little direct influence
over the health of the watershed due to the small
amount of land they administer because much of the
BLM land is in smaller tracts surrounded by private
land, making management of the private lands even
more of an influence on BLM lands.
of the John Day's popularity as a recreational river,
fecal coliform (bacteria originating from livestock
waste) is also a very real concern. Most raft floats
on the John Day are extended trips that involve
washing dishes with river water, and many visitors
come into direct contact with the river through
boating, angling, and swimming. Continued grazing
here could lead to serious public health problems.
a recent rafting trip down the wild and scenic stretch
of the John Day, Melanie Leaf of Portland said her
group was in complete awe of the basalt canyons
above them. But soon the sound of irrigation pumps
filled the air. As they pulled out that first night,
they found a shelf to set up camp. An ideal experience?
Not exactly, she said. "There were cow pies
also noticed dramatic fluctuations in river flows.
In the John Day as elsewhere in the West, ranchers
divert water behind "push-up" dams they
build every spring. When they bring their heavy
bulldozers in the river, they crush everything below,
including salmon nests in the gravels. These temporary
dams don't damage stream habitat just once; they
may wash out several times each year, releasing
sediment downstream and requiring replacement dams
that multiply the damage.
John Day is supposed to be one of the wildest rivers
in the Northwest, but for 100 years it has been
bled dry by poor irrigation management," says
Waterwatch's Priestley. "The river is dying
and unless we get flows up and cows out, we are
going to lose an Oregon treasure."