Summer 2002

The Big Dry

Cows plus drought equals misery for rivers in the West

Top 10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry

1. Bear River -- Utah, Wyoming, Idaho

2. Salmon River -- Idaho

3. Gila River -- New Mexico, Arizona

4. John Day River -- Oregon

5. Owyhee River -- Oregon, Nevada, Idaho

6. Sweetwater River -- Wyoming

7. Big Hole River -- Montana

8. Little Humboldt River -- Nevada

9. Yampa River -- Colorado

10. Kern River -- California

Buyout or Bailout?

A Killing in the Klamath

2002 Cascadia Times

Top 10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry

4 John Day - Oregon


Double trouble for wild fish

Cows ravage the headwaters, while ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management dewater the lower river.

For fish, this equation has meant trouble for a century.

"Most 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.

"You've 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.

In 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 basin’s average annual discharge.

Biologists 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.

The 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 cutthroat trout.

With 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.

In the headwaters, the river and its tributaries are much shallower, wider, warmer, and have fewer rearing pools than did it could.

Bathtub-like 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."

In 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 executive director.

The 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.

"Despite 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.

In 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.

Because 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.

On 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 everywhere."

She 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.

"The 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."