Protecting Land on the West's Outstanding Rivers

by Western Rivers Conservancy
Protecting Land on the West's Outstanding Rivers
Jul 13, 2020

Western Rivers Conservancy: Summer 2020 Report

With backing from GlobalGiving donors, Western Rivers Conservancy is permanently protecting land along outstanding rivers across the western United States. Your gift supports the core costs of purchasing and conserving land for the benefit of fish, wildlife and people. Your contribution is dedicated to such efforts as preserving salmon and wildlife habitat, and creating new hiking trails, boating access and recreational opportunities.

Thanks to your support, Western Rivers Conservancy is:

• Returning perennial flows to an outstanding Colorado trout stream

• Expanding public lands and protecting habitat along the wild and scenic John Day River in eastern Oregon

Colorado’s Little Cimarron River:

In Colorado’s Southern Rocky Mountains, Western Rivers Conservancy just completed a groundbreaking effort to return much-needed water to the Little Cimarron River, one of the Centennial State’s topnotch trout streams.

Beloved by fly anglers, the Little Cimarron tumbles from the Uncompahgre Wilderness, an alpine wonderland of jagged peaks and wildflower-dotted tundra in the San Juan Mountains. Leaving public land, the river flows north through a high agricultural valley where farms and ranches draw the stream down, sometimes to nothing, before it joins the Cimarron River.

The main Cimarron then meets the Gunnison River in the spectacular Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The Little Cimarron’s forested upper reaches contain superb habitat for brook and cutthroat trout. Downstream, though, the Little Cimarron encounters irrigation ditches that pull water from the stream for hay and cattle. In the summer, this can leave the Little Cimarron River running low and warm—or dried up altogether—cutting off access to the colder, healthier habitat of the upper river for downstream fish.

To keep the river running cold all year, Western Rivers Conservancy bought a former dairy farm in 2012 that diverts substantial water from the Little Cimarron. Targeted for development, the farm had gone into foreclosure but remained a valued piece of the valley’s agricultural heritage. WRC purchased the property, along with its water rights, and, in partnership with Colorado Water Trust, spearheaded a community solution that would allow water for fish and farms both.

While holding the land, we conveyed the water rights to Colorado Water Trust in 2014. Working alongside the trust, we established a split-season irrigation agreement that helps ensure adequate flows for fish during the driest summer months, while allowing the farm to draw water at other times.

With the water-sharing regime firmly established, WRC sold the land in March 2020 to a neighboring farmer, who has embraced the irrigation arrangement to demonstrate that agriculture and rivers can coexist in Colorado. The farm can now remain a productive part of the local economy, while the stream remains connected year-round for the sake of the Little Cimarron’s fish. Consistent flows will help decrease water temperatures in the lower river and allow trout and other native fish to reestablish the de-watered reach of the stream.

The project’s innovative split-season approach is the first of its kind in Colorado. WRC and the new landowner are demonstrating the viability of cutting-edge solutions like this--solutions that will be critical to meeting the goals laid out in Colorado’s Water Plan. A unique collaboration of agricultural and conservation partners made this possible, including WRC, Colorado Water Trust, local farmers and ranchers, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. We hope this groundbreaking effort paves the way for similar solutions to Colorado’s water challenges, keeping rivers, fish and local farming economies healthy for the long run.

Oregon’s John Day River:

Deepening our work on Oregon’s John Day River, Western Rivers Conservancy is poised to acquire a critical three-mile stretch of the lower John Day, at McDonald’s Ferry. The effort will protect a key boater take out, create new river access, preserve a historic segment of the Oregon Trail and improve crucial spawning and rearing habitat for John Day steelhead.

This summer, WRC hopes to purchase the 4,100-acre McDonald’s Ferry property, named for the historic ferry that settlers used to cross the John Day River on their journey west. Wagon ruts from the 1800s can still be seen on the ranch, carved into the desert floor by the thousands of wagons heading west to the Willamette Valley. Today, the property is critical for boaters as the last take-out before the river winds into a 10-mile roadless reach and then careens over the un-runnable Tumwater Falls.

Until now, public access to the John Day River at McDonald’s Ferry has been uncertain. To guarantee permanent river access, WRC plans to purchase the property and convey it to the BLM for protection within the John Day Wild and Scenic River corridor. Our efforts will also create new access to three miles of the John Day River.

Conservation of the ranch presents an exciting opportunity to restore a stretch of Grass Valley Canyon Creek, a tributary to the John Day that flows through the property. The stream once provided prime spawning habitat for summer steelhead, but years ago its confluence with the John Day was moved to make way for cultivation. This and water withdraws upstream severely limit fish passage. Habitat restoration on the property would be a significant step toward making this crucial tributary a viable spawning stream for steelhead once again.


The Little Cimarron and John Day River projects are just some of our recent projects. WRC currently has over two dozen active projects in six states. With the support of GlobalGiving donors, Western Rivers Conservancy is expanding our efforts to protect riverlands for fish, wildlife and people.

We love to hear from our supporters. Please contact Anne Tattam at 503-241-0151, ext. 219 (or for further information. Thank you.

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Organization Information

Western Rivers Conservancy

Project Leader:
Anne Tattam
Administrative and Development Associate
Portland , OR United States
$6,741 raised of $100,000 goal
88 donations
$93,259 to go
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