JOHN DAY - The state is notifying Northeastern Oregon irrigators not to expect routine maintenance of fish screens on their property as the result of reduced federal funding.

Alan D. Ritchey, statewide fish screening coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, sent notices about the service cut at the end of December to landowners who have fish screens on their land. The devices are installed on irrigation diversions to keep fish from swimming into irrigation ditches and being washed toward certain death in farm fields.

The fish screens are installed and maintained by ODFW crews in a program funded by the federal Mitchell Act.

The Mitchell Act goes back to 1938, when it was established to help conserve salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin. The money is allocated now through the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Ritchey said that up to 1993, Oregon received $2.24 million a year for screening and passage activities. The amount subsequently hit a low of $1.48 million and has remained flat for several years, he said.

Although the funding is about the same as last year, the reduced funding over the years has taken a toll. This year, Ritchey said, the program has no reserves to carry over, and costs continue to rise.

"In addition, we put out more screens each year, which is a good thing," he said. "But that's also more screens to maintain."

As a result, Ritchey said, six fish screen technicians have been cut from this year's budget.

"ODFW will no longer be able to provide the routine maintenance and repair services at the level we have in the past," he wrote.

In the past, workers checked the devices on a regular basis, looking for damaged seals, holes in the screens or other problems that would result in a fish release - or cause a problem with water flow.

Ritchey asked landowners for patience as workers turn their focus to emergency and major maintenance needs. Landowners who have problems getting irrigation water due to screen problems should still contact ODFW as soon as possible, he said.

The agency has installed more than 750 fish screens in the Columbia Basin, he said. They are maintained by crews working out of ODFW screen shops in John Day, Enterprise and The Dalles.

The largest of the three is the John Day shop. It has about 22 employees, including field and office workers, said Kelly Stokes, shop director. The budget cuts took two positions from that shop, effective late last year.

Stokes said the funding difficulties are a huge concern, not only because of the staff but also the program's successes.

"The John Day shop has been a backbone of our program for years," he said. "We've done projects throughout the region."

He said his crews will still try to keep the fish screens in working order, but the cutbacks may mean that landowners will need to monitor the screens themselves, and they may need to wait longer for help.

He expects the agency's private partners will do their best to help.

"The folks locally have made huge efforts, in cooperation with us, to restore the fish population," he said. "They've all got a heart for fish."

Ritchey's letter also suggested that additional reduction or elimination of the Mitchell Act could bring more cuts or even closure of the ODFW screen shops in the region.

"The long-term status of federal funding for this program is unknown," he said.

Mitchell Act funding has sparked debate in past years, but usually with a focus on possible closure of fish hatcheries.

Aides to both U.S. Rep. Greg Walden and Sen. Ron Wyden said last week that there's no plan to scrap the Mitchell Act. They also said they recognize the importance of the screen shop jobs in the local economies of Eastern Oregon.

Tom Towslee, a spokesman for Wyden, said the senator has supported the program in the past and he expects the leadership in Washington, D.C. will continue to fund it.

"It's a good program, it provides jobs and it saves fish," he said.

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