Here's a scenario that should send a shudder through every environmentalist and regulatory bureaucrat in the world: Imagine if scientists could show that human activities had little if anything to do with the higher-than-60-degree temperatures in Oregon's streams and rivers.

How many environmental laws would become irrelevant? How many justifications for lengthy analysis of activities on federal lands would be rendered moot? How much regulation of private enterprise in the name of water-quality protection would simply go away?

We believe the question is worth pondering, particularly in light of a recent article in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation (May/June 2003). This article chronicled a 1999-2001 study of water temperatures on the north and middle forks of the John Day River. The study, contracted by the Grant County Livestock Growers and conducted by the Oregon Cattlemen's West program, established baseline data and compared water temperatures and sediment to a background of natural factors such as elevation and climate.

The conclusion is shocking:

"Overall, thermal and sediment pollution were undetected once natural and/or background conditions were established," wrote Pat and Larry Larson, a forester and a range ecologist, respectively, from La Grande.

In other words, the monitors could not find human-caused pollution in the form of excessive temperatures. Natural heating of waters, yes. Human-caused heating of waters, no.

The Larsons elaborated: "The data in this three-year study did not detect thermal or sediment pollution between sites used for grazing or hay production, and sites without grazing. ... (Participating landowners') efforts determined that existing water quality conditions within the watershed were strongly influenced by weather and elevation and served to illustrate the need to establish natural or background conditions before drawing conclusions with regard to pollution or management activities." - "Landowner monitoring of stream temperature and bottom sediments," P.A. Larson and L.L. Larson, page 6 (of six pages).

So Mother Nature, not big, bad loggers or ranchers, should shoulder most if not all of the "blame" for the "polluting" temperatures in our rivers.

We find this conclusion worthy of further research. Is it possible that our government has bought into a faulty theory, the theory that resource producers should be regulated in an effort to lower stream temperatures? Wouldn't it be staggering if all of the regulation and castigation of loggers, ranchers and other resource users for alleged water pollution has been based on a false and untested assumption?

Consider the citations in the box at left that refer to water temperatures and reflect how deeply ingrained temperature-based regulation has become in the West (We should ask ourselves: How many of these statements came with a site-specific study to back them up?):

It seems that water-temperature monitoring is like the theory of global warming. Gauges can show that streams exceed 60 degrees, just as studies can show that the Earth is warming up. However, these data do not demonstrate that human beings should be blamed for the heightened temperatures. That's where conjecture and assumption come into play. Oddly, landowners and "industry" typically become the scapegoats for the warmth detected in both waterways and in the Earth's atmosphere. Proof of this correlation is hard to come by.

How monumental would it be if the Larsons have stumbled across the truth about stream temperatures? If we had nobody but Mother Nature to blame for the temperatures of our waterways, how could we continue to justify regulatory overkill?

Maybe we need to more closely question some of the assumptions of our regulatory agencies. At the very least, we should expect them to show hard numbers before rolling out the shaky premise that our landowners and producers are polluting the waters of the West.

• "Oregon waterways face the potential threat of pollution from population growth, development, urban runoff, recreation and agriculture, among other sources. ... The current list of water quality limited streams was established by assessing the water's temperature and the level of dissolved oxygen, nutrients, sediment load, pH, bacteria and other factors." - "Water Quality and Agriculture in Oregon: Implementation of Senate Bill 1010" brochure, page 4 (of eight pages).

Note: A cursory glance at the federal 303(d) list under the Clean Water Act reveals that nearly all of Eastern Oregon's "water quality limited" streams were placed on the federal list due strictly to "excessive" water temperature. Senate Bill 1010 launched a well-meaning but ultimately divisive and futile private-lands planning process. This process monopolized the time and energy of countless landowners who were accused of polluting the state's waters with heightened temperatures and were instructed to self-regulate the operation of their farms and ranches.

• "All segments of the Wild and Scenic River are listed on the (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality) 303(d) list of affected waters for temperature. ... The Water Quality Restoration Plan focuses on human-caused disturbance in the lower John Day Basin Wild and Scenic River Corridor that is under the control of federal land management agencies. ... Because the North Fork contributes 60 percent of the flow to the mainstem John Day, the influence of the North Fork on temperature and, therefore, fisheries is significant." - Record of Decision, John Day River Management Plan, pages 129-131 (of 268 pages).

• "The quality of water leaving the forest varies with the season, geology, land use and elevation. ... Although timber harvest activities, road construction, insect outbreaks and fire influence shading and streambank stability, the greatest effect on stream temperature and stability appears to be from a reduction in hardwoods caused by ungulate grazing." - Final Environmental Impact Statement, Land and Resource Management Plan, Malheur National Forest, pages III-56, III-59 (of 480-plus pages).

• "Myrtle Creek, Stancliffe Creek and the Silvies River have been monitored for water temperature and all have exceeded the maximum water temperature standards established by ODEQ at least once during the period of 1995-1999. ... With implementation of any of the action alternatives, stream temperatures are not expected to increase because riparian buffers following INFISH standards and guidelines will be applied." Silvies Canyon Watershed Restoration Project Final Environmental Impact Statement - pages R8-9 (of 440-plus pages).

• "Management practices such as grazing, recreation, fuels management and other forms of vegetative management are expected to be designed to provide for the health, form and function of riparian systems." - Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project Eastside Draft Environmental Impact Statement, page 121 (of 800-plus pages).

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