Making way for fish near the fossil beds

The Eagle/DAVID CARKHUFF<br> Michael Fischer, employee of the National Park Service, completes construction of a fish-friendly water diversion in Rock Creek, a tributary of the John Day River.

DAYVILLE - A century-old irrigation diversion to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument has received an upgrade for the benefit of fish.

Irrigation water flowing to the James Cant National Historic District, located on the monument, will begin bubbling over new fish-friendly devices this fall. The improvements were made in Rock Creek, a tributary of the John Day River at the junction of highways 26 and 19 west of Dayville.

The National Park Service, with the engineering assistance of the Grant Soil and Water Conservation District, installed a water diversion constructed of 10,000-pound precast concrete blocks, according to Ken Hyde, chief of natural resources for the monument. The diversion channels water from Rock Creek to the monument, where managers of the historic district continue to irrigate fields in the tradition of past operators of the Cant Ranch.

With this upgrade, a ditch dating back to 1895 has been equipped with a diversion that will protect young and adult steelhead trout, Hyde said. Also, thanks to assistance from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, a fish screen will be installed to prevent steelhead and other species from being trapped in the irrigation ditch.

ODFW fish biologist Tim Unterwegner welcomed the improvement.

"The new structure will provide unrestricted passage for adult and juvenile steelhead during all streamflows," he noted.

Jim Hammett, superintendent of the fossil beds, said the project was overdue.

"I think it's something we've long needed. Rock Creek is one of the prime steelhead spawning streams in the mainstem of the John Day River. A significant number of steelhead go up Rock Creek each year to spawn, and of course the smolts are coming down as well," he said.

Hammett praised Ken Delano, director of the Grant SWCD, for helping the park service with the project design during a short and busy period when instream work is allowed due to low water flows.

The fossil beds monument, while focused on prehistory, is well versed in ranch management as well. The monument encompasses the historic Cant Ranch. In 2004, when a new visitor center is scheduled to open at the monument, the current monument headquarters will be dedicated as a museum of area ranching history.

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