Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers

by WaterWatch of Oregon
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Map of Instream Water Rights in Oregon
Map of Instream Water Rights in Oregon

After many years of work, WaterWatch has revived Oregon’s Instream Water Rights Program, originally established by the passage of the Instream Water Rights Act of 1987 (one of WaterWatch’s first landmark victories). The program is now poised to apply for hundreds of new instream water rights. This effort will forever protect thousands of cubic feet per second of stream flows on hundreds of miles of streams starting in the Rogue, Umpqua and South Coast basins. 

In the most significant environmental water protection initiative in North America today, WaterWatch will work closely with state agencies and the governor to establish permanent legal protection for water in hundreds of streams using Oregon’s Instream Water Rights Act. Our two year goal is to secure 191 - 211 new instream water rights and 48 new field studies needed to support later applications.

As a result of WaterWatch’s work, Oregon has recently created 80 new instream water rights to protect streamflows and help salmonids adapt to a changing climate on north and mid coast streams like the Salmonberry, Nehalem, Nestucca, Necanicum, Siletz, Alsea and other very important salmon rivers and streams across the state. These water rights provide permanent protections for these important stretches of rivers. More instream water rights have been introduced and are on their way to being certificated. Along with our other ongoing work across the state, WaterWatch will continue to be an advocate for instream needs and for protecting Oregon’s beautiful rivers and critical salmon runs with instream water rights!

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Fielder Dam
Fielder Dam

Restoration Boosts Salmon Resilience and Abundance During Climate Change

This summer will mark the fifth anniversary of work crews demolishing Fielder and Wimer dams on Evans Creek to restore access for native fish on a key spawning tributary of the Rogue River. Above these former dam sites, approximately 19 miles of habitat is available for fall chinook production, 60 miles for coho salmon production, and 70 miles for steelhead production. Evans Creek also supports cutthroat trout, Pacific lamprey, and suckers.

Since the removals, biologists have collected scientific data indicating that these removals have improved the health and resiliency of Rogue Basin fish runs. This spring brought more good news. For years, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) has maintained a survey site on West Evans Creek, above the two dams removed on the mainstem. Now, for the first time, ODFW recorded outmigrating lamprey at this site. ODFW reports that even during this year’s unusually low flows, winter steelhead appeared in the West Evans creek system. Before removal, the two dams’ inadequate fish ladders likely would have prevented steelhead from accessing this high quality habitat during drought. 

Thanks to your support, WaterWatch helped Rogue salmon and steelhead gain improved access to quality habitat in the upper reaches of the creek. This important river restoration project is a great credit to the many partners who came together to get it done, and demonstrates the need to maintain the federal and state programs that made the project possible.

State and federal agencies identified Evans Creek, and restoring access to high quality fish habitat in its upper reaches, as important to the recovery of Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast coho salmon, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. State biologists also ranked these two dams among the top 10 most significant fish barriers on Oregon’s 2013 Statewide Fish Passage Priority List.

The removal of outdated dams is helping to blunt some of the stress on fish populations during climate change, but we need to do more. There are many other high priority barriers to salmon and steelhead still left in the Rogue—and the rest of Oregon. WaterWatch has been working hard to address these barriers, and remains a leader in dam removal statewide. Please stay tuned for coming updates on this important work.

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Drift Creek Falls
Drift Creek Falls

Thanks in part to WaterWatch of Oregon—and the supporters who help make our work possible—efforts to build a new dam on a tributary to the Pudding River near Silverton hit a major roadblock.

On Nov. 22, an application by the East Valley Water District (EVWD) to build a new 70-foot dam with an accompanying 12,000-acre-foot reservoir on Drift Creek was denied by Oregon Water Resources Commission. The unanimous vote, which safeguards habitat for several fish species, including threatened steelhead, sensitive Pacific lamprey, coho salmon, and native coastal cutthroat trout, reversed a decision by the Water Resources Department (Department) in response to a challenge filed by WaterWatch. The decision reaffirms a core WaterWatch principle: Putting new dams in the channels of streams with important fish habitat should rarely be an option for meeting Oregon’s future water needs.

Still, the roughly five-year battle, which included a two-week trial before an administrative law judge, isn’t over. In late January, EVWD appealed the decision to the Oregon Court of Appeals. WaterWatch now joins the State of Oregon in defending the November decision. WaterWatch also filed its own appeal to present additional grounds for denying the permit if needed.

“We were happy to see the Water Resources Commission make the right decision on this,” says WaterWatch staff attorney Brian Posewitz, who represented WaterWatch in the administrative trial and before the Commission. “We know it wasn't easy given the Department's previous decision and the powerful interests behind the proposal. We look forward to helping defend the Commission's decision on appeal.”

WaterWatch was joined in opposition to EVWD's proposal by a group of farmers, represented by attorney Janet Neuman, who stood to lose parts of their property through condemnation by EVWD to make way for the reservoir.

Formed in 2000, EVWD is an irrigation district made up of farmers in and around the Mt. Angel area. Although the farmers have existing water rights to irrigate crops, they claim to need another source of water based primarily on speculative fear of future government regulation. They turned to Drift Creek, which was not identified as a practical source of irrigation water in earlier studies, only after another plan fell through. Even taking EVWD’s speculative claims at face value, WaterWatch believes that EVWD has better alternatives that are less harmful for fish and cheaper over time than building this dam.

In 2013, EVWD formally applied to the Water Resources Department for the right to store water on Drift Creek. The next several years witnessed a flurry of activity involving WaterWatch: The Department issued a proposed final order that recommended approval of the dam. WaterWatch and the farmers filed protests. The Department referred the case to the Office of Administrative Hearings and the parties conducted extensive investigation and preparation for their cases. After the two-week trial in June 2018, the administrative judge issued a proposed order recommending approval of EVWD's proposal with modifications. WaterWatch filed arguments against the proposed order (called "exceptions") but the Department nevertheless adopted most of the hearings officer's recommendations.

Building the dam thus seemed a “done deal”—until a subcommittee of the Commission, which reviewed exceptions filed by WaterWatch and the farmers to the Department's order, announced in November a recommendation to deny the application based primarily on the impacts the dam and reservoir would have on an instream water right for the benefit of cutthroat trout. WaterWatch and the farmers buttressed their arguments at a hearing before the Commission in late November and the entire Commission then voted to support the subcommittee's recommendation.

WaterWatch is now preparing for the next round on appeals.

Stay tuned.

An Upstream View of Drift Creek
An Upstream View of Drift Creek

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The Clackamas River
The Clackamas River

Since 2008, WaterWatch of Oregon has been involved in a fascinating and compelling case to stop the excessive withdrawal of water on Oregon’s lower Clackamas River, a backyard river in Portland that still supports imperiled runs of salmon and steelhead. At stake: The future of four runs of already imperiled fish in the river which would be further affected by the amount of water being proposed for withdrawal.

The background of this ongoing case: Municipalities (including Lake Oswego and Tigard) are seeking entitlements to withdraw water at a rate of flow of 160 cubic feet per second from the lower Clackamas River through eight water permits. This is in addition to the similar amount they already withdraw. If approved, in total, these municipalities would be allowed to take about half of the dry season flow of the lower Clackamas. WaterWatch challenged Oregon’s proposed approval in January of 2008 on the grounds that such a withdrawal would endanger the lives of fish and wildlife and not comply with the law.

In 2014, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in WaterWatch’s favor that Oregon’s proposed approval lacked substantial evidence and substantial reason demonstrating that imperiled fish could continue to persist in the lower Clackamas if so much water was removed. The Oregon Water Resources Department (WRD) was tasked to either provide evidence to support its decision to allow cities to withdraw so much water or, alternatively, come up with a new plan.

A second appeal was filed by WaterWatch in December 2018 after WRD drew up a new plan that we believe still puts the fish in peril. In late October 2019, WaterWatch prepared and filed its opening brief as regards this most recent legal development. Please stay tuned for more developments as this case moves forward!

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Nehalem River Photo
Nehalem River Photo

Good News! Oregon Governor Kate Brown has designated a 17.5 mile section of the Nehalem River as Oregon’s newest  state scenic waterway!

The Nehalem River on Oregon’s North Coast is one of Oregon’s gems. The river is a favorite of boaters, anglers, and hikers, and provides important habitat to a myriad of fish species, including coho, spring and fall chinook, steelhead, chum, and sea-run cutthroat. To see a map click here.

The State Scenic Waterway Act, voted into law by Oregon citizens in 1970 by a two-to-one margin, exists to protect Oregon's most beloved rivers. This visionary act mandates that the highest and best uses of waters in state scenic waterways are for fish, wildlife, and recreation.The state of Oregon manages these waterways to protect their natural resources, scenic values, and recreational uses including instituting safeguards to protect instream flows, prevent dams, and protect native fish populations.

A big shout out to our many supporters who helped make this happen by voicing your support over the past two years! 

 

For other news and recent updates about our work, please check out our 2019 Summer Instream Newsletter here!

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WaterWatch of Oregon

Location: Portland, Oregon - USA
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Project Leader:
John DeVoe
Portland, Oregon United States
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