CANYON CITY - Officials raised caution flags last week over a proposal that would ask some irrigators to limit their water use in late summer and take other steps to improve water flow - and thus fish habitat - in the mainstem John Day River.

Steve Parrett, project manager with the Oregon Water Trust (OWT), presented a PowerPoint on the scenario at the Jan. 7 meeting of the Grant County Court.

Under the OWT proposal, participating irrigators would sign a 10-year water management agreement. In exchange for annual payments, they would be asked to:

? Limit irrigation diversions significantly in late summer.

? Use more gradual headgate adjustment to even out water use and surges - for example, small changes three or four times a day, rather than one rapid change once a day.

? Use soil moisture data to avoid wasted irrigation and target drier pastures effectively.

? Manage irrigation sets to maximize growth and prevent runoff.

Parrett said such changes in the upper reaches of the river, from Rail Creek to Prairie City, would put more water - and colder water - into the channel from Prairie City to John Day. The water in the lower reaches currently becomes lethally warm for fish in the summer, he said.

He said that in nine of the previous 37 years, the water flow in August at the John Day gage averaged less than 20 cubic feet per second (cfs). In 16 of those years, the average was less than 30 cfs - a baseline to foster fish survival.

"So half the time it's a problem," Parrett said. "A quarter of the time, its a real bad problem."

Flow restoration could drop the water temperature, increase the habitat for fish rearing, expand the channel width and have a positive impact on oxygen in the water, he said.

"The idea is to bring more of that high-quality water down the river," Parrett said.

Participation would be on a voluntary basis. The landowners would be paid annually for the loss of production - with the exact arrangement to be negotiated.

Parrett presented a chart showing that alfalfa hay growers get the most value out of early-season irrigation, and that production gains taper off after July.

However, several observers rejected the contention that late-season water is less valuable to landowners.

Pat Holliday, a rancher who also works for the Grant County Soil and Water Conservation District, said late-season irrigation is critical for many ranchers - not for hay production, but for fall pasture for their stock.

Many producers would say no to the proposal on that point alone, she said, because it would force them to buy hay - an expensive prospect these days - or find fall pasture to lease. Such land is in short supply, she and others said.

In addition, those attending the meeting suggested that private landowners would be reluctant to have any tinkering with their water rights, a cornerstone of their livelihood.

"To a private operator, water is one of the ways we believe that other people will try to get control of our land," Holliday said.

Parrett said the reduced use wouldn't jeopardize the landowner's water rights, but the program could provide an incentive for them to use water more efficiently and be sure of compliance with the water rights. More efficient irrigation also might mean better quality forage, he said.

Jason Kehrberg, SWCD director, said that because of the costs and the water rights concerns, he doubted the proposal could be implemented initially to the extent Parrett wants.

Asked by Commissioner Boyd Britton if the OWT proposal has been presented to local stock growers or cattlemen's groups, Parrett replied, "We've found the cattlemen not to be too interested."

However, County Judge Mark Webb noted that the OWT would need the landowners to buy into the program to make it happen.

Ken Delano, retired director of the SWCD, suggested that the OWT could "start small," trying a pilot project with a few willing landowners and see if they can demonstrate how the changes might benefit their land.

"We are kind of a show-me part of the world," he said.

Oregon Water Trust is a conservation organization whose mission is to restore stream flows and improve the health of waterways across the state, using free-market solutions. It recently merged with Oregon Trout.

Parrett said the mainstem John Day River study was funded by the Bella Vista Foundation, a San Francisco-based group "with a particular interest in the John Day Basin."

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