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Farmer to Save 1 Billion Gallons of Water a Year Thanks to a Conservation Partnership

Woody Wolfe stands at the confluence of the Lostine and Wallowa rivers on his property.

Wolfe Family Farm and The Freshwater Trust are working together to transition nearly 1,100 acres of forage and grain crops from flood irrigation to pivot sprinkler irrigation. The Freshwater Trust, a nonprofit freshwater conservation and restoration organization, received nearly $1.4 million from the Oregon Water Resources Department to cover upgrading irrigation infrastructure, transferring points of diversion, and leasing water rights for conservation purposes. Because pivot systems use as little as half as much water as flood irrigation, this project means that about 1 billion gallons of water will stay in the water system to benefit the endangered Chinook salmon.

The farm and local community will benefit too. Infrastructure upgrades are expected to increase yields at the ranch by 5 to 20%. “By decreasing the water applied to fields, producers are able to reduce soil erosion, increase soil organic matter, improve soil health and rely less heavily on fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides,” said Aaron Maxwell, flow restoration project manager for The Freshwater Trust. The transition to sprinkler irrigation will also allow the farm to diversify offerings and potentially grow more high value food and forage crops. Approximately $2 million in capital and construction costs will also be infused into the regional economy with this project. Local businesses will be contracted for labor and materials.

The water in the rivers will be cleaner too. The problem’s associated with flood irrigation, like standing water warmed by the sun, contaminated with sediment, nutrients, bacteria and toxins, and returned to the original body of water downstream in a degraded state, will be all but eliminated.

The Wolfe Century Farm, where the project is taking place, was originally established in 1897, and has served as a traditional Native American summer fishing camp for the Wallowa Band Nez Perce since long before that. Congress designated the area as a private-lands unit of the Nez Perce National Historical Park. Old Chief Joseph died there in 1871 and was originally buried near the farm. Today, the property contains a fish weir facility operated by the Nez Perce Tribe to monitor and manage Chinook salmon.

Woody Wolfe is the 6th generation on the farm and he and his wife, Megan, raise wheat for pasta and breads and timothy hay for livestock forage. About the project, Woody says, “Water scarcity and quality issues are not going to go away. Projects like this help further the responsible use of our natural resources while benefiting the environment.”

In addition to transferring the water saved through the irrigation upgrade to the Lostine River, the Wolfe Family Farm is also voluntarily forgoing irrigation in August and September when river flows reach critically low levels. By being able to irrigate more effectively and precisely in the early part of the irrigation season, farmers can more effectively utilize cover cropping and intensively managed grazing techniques to build soil moisture and resistance to drought.

Over time, these changes in water use and farming practices—combined with payments to not irrigate during periods of low river flows and to retire irrigated acres not conducive to pivot irrigation—will yield a project that benefits both farm and fish. Funding for these voluntary water agreements is provided through the Columbia Basin Water Transactions Program, managed by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in partnership with the Bonneville Power Administration and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

This is the kind of project that The Freshwater Trust is known for. TFT hasn’t just looked at how agriculture can change it’s practices, but at how conservation as a whole can change their practices. “We’ve formed lasting relationships with dozens of farmers and ranchers who understand conservation isn’t just about protecting fish,” says Maxwell. “It’s about the longevity of their farms, economies and entire communities.”

Tony Malmberg, another Oregon rancher who has worked with the organization agrees: “To get more healthy rivers, The Freshwater Trust has worked with me and other ranchers and farmers to better manage or water and better manage our resource. And this just really excites me. The way I graze, the way I manage land can help fix rivers.”

Aaron Maxwell, The Freshwater Trust

According to The Freshwater Trust, these types of collaborations are meant not only to secure clean, healthy water now but to support the future of fish and farming.

“Production and economics must always be taken into consideration with projects like these,” concludes Maxwell. “This will have positive implications for the landowner and the local economy.”

If these kinds of partnerships between producers and conservationists are interesting to you, take a minute to learn more at The Freshwater Trust’s website. Though they don’t work nationally in the U.S. yet, they provide some good examples of the ways we can work together to achieve the results we’re all interested in. And if you have some ideas for how this might work in your area, or questions about who you might contact to get started, let us know in the comments below.

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Kathy Voth
Kathy Vothhttps://onpasture.com
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.

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