Oregon Farmers, Ranchers and Landowners Are Doing Their Part to Improve Water Quality

PORTLAND, Ore., August 18, 2020 – Drive across Oregon or fly overhead and you will see evidence of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) work on the state’s landscape.

You’ve likely driven past conservation practices such as streamside buffers, restored wetlands, contour strips, and fields planted with protective cover, some of just a few visible signs of NRCS’ work in Oregon.

Perhaps a little less visible to the average passerby are practices that focus on water conservation, such as updated sprinkler systems or newly pressurized pipes. Though less visible, these water conservation practices provide numerous benefits to landowners, wildlife, and the surrounding environment.

Let’s take a virtual trip to see some water conservation benefits across the state.

Travel east towards the Oregon-Idaho state line and you will see signs of water conservation success in the Fletcher Gulch Watershed, an area consisting of 6,500 acres of irrigated cropland and rangeland. The watershed drainage area spans approximately 6.5 miles long and enters the Old Owyhee Ditch, a tributary to the Owyhee and Snake rivers.

In the late 1980’s, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality 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.

To combat these issues, local landowners worked with NRCS and partner agencies to modernize their irrigation infrastructure and leverage new technologies such as sprinkler systems and pressurized pipe. This two-fold solution helped conserve water, eliminate poor water quality issues, reduce labor and maintenance, and therein reduce overall costs.

Out in northeastern Oregon, you’ll spot water conservation success in the Grande Ronde River Watershed. Local landowners and ranchers worked with NRCS, the Union Soil and Water Conservation District and other partners to maximize water efficiency for local agriculture while also improving salmon habitat.

Throughout the watershed, landowners upgraded to more modern and efficient irrigation systems. The switch to more efficient irrigation systems, such as pivot and linear irrigation systems, reduced the irrigation water and energy consumption by 30 percent. These new systems also require less manual labor to operate.

Upgrading irrigation systems throughout the Grande Ronde River Watershed meant more water in the river for fish, supporting the recovery of endangered salmon, steelhead, and bull trout populations. This watershed success is a win-win for farmers and fish.

On Mt. Hood, the Middle Fork Irrigation District (MFID) has the challenging task of managing irrigation water along the steep mountain slopes. That is why over 50 years ago NRCS (known then as the Soil Conservation Service) constructed Clear Branch Dam, which in turn created Laurance Lake.

Before NRCS constructed the dam, managing glacier melt in the summer often led to issues with sedimentation and water turbidity in irrigation systems, impacting the smooth transport of water to agricultural users. The dam and subsequent creation of the lake helped to stabilize irrigation water delivery services for the MFID and agricultural irrigation users on Mt. Hood.

NRCS is currently working with MFID to rehabilitate the dam so that it can continue providing agricultural water supply and fish habitat into the future.

NRCS is also working with Mt. Hood farmers serviced by MFID to upgrade their irrigation equipment to save water and energy. Some producers have upgraded to microsprinkler irrigation, a low-pressure, low-volume irrigation system suitable for high value crops such as fruit trees. Microsprinkler irrigation saves water because of the high-application efficiency and high-water distribution uniformity with little if any waste. It’s an ideal system for sloping or irregularly shaped orchard blocks.

These three examples across the state highlight the benefits derived from investing in water conservation. Water conservation does more than protect natural resources— these practices also help to sustain local agriculture and support rural farm economies.

NRCS conservationists in Oregon work with farmers, ranchers, private forest landowners and local soil and water conservation districts to plan and install conservation practices. NRCS offers more than 170 individual practices and suites of practices that can be used to improve soil health, water quality, air quality and wildlife habitat. When planning these practices, NRCS staff works to help producers maintain or improve agricultural productivity.

As the nation celebrates National Water Quality Month in August, NRCS Oregon salutes the conservation-minded farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners who do their part daily to improve water quality and other natural resources on their operations. The impacts of their water quality efforts are significant and rewarding. We are fortunate to have clean, safe water for drinking and for agriculture, recreation and other purposes in Oregon and we appreciate your efforts.

Agriculture can and does play a critical role in improving water quality and other natural resources in our state. NRCS and its partners are committed to helping producers find suitable solutions to their natural resource challenges, such as water quality impairment. In many regions of the nation, NRCS offers technical and financial assistance in high-priority watersheds identified by local communities and applicable state agencies.

Our success in improving water quality in Oregon rests with our producers. For many farmers, investing resources in environmental resources is a tradition that goes back generations.

NRCS encourages more producers to include water conservation as part of their operation. Producers who are interested in learning how to integrate conservation into their operation, can visit USDA’s farmers.gov website for more information about NRCS conservation offerings.