Freshwater Trust helps keep rivers from being dewatered

By Katy Nesbitt, The Observer October 10, 2012 01:47 pm

The Lostine River flows out of the Eagle Cap Wilderness and is diverted by 14 ditches before it meets the Wallowa River in the mid-valley. KATY NESBITT - The Observer
The Lostine River flows out of the Eagle Cap Wilderness and is diverted by 14 ditches before it meets the Wallowa River in the mid-valley. KATY NESBITT - The Observer

The Freshwater Trust is the newest edition to a suite of natural resource organizations housed with Wallowa Resources in Enterprise.

The Trust’s office, staffed by Aaron Maxwell, may be new to town, but the organization has been working in Wallowa County for nearly 20 years and directly with Lostine River irrigators for most of the last decade.

David Pilz, Freshwater Trust’s flow restoration director, said the Trust was the first of its kind in the West. 

Originally called the Oregon Water Trust, the organization was established in response to Oregon’s Instream Water Rights Act, which went into effect in 1987.

“It was the genesis of a West-wide movement. Beginning in 1993 the organization set out to see if we could find landowners willing to work with us to restore waters to rivers – rivers that are important habitat for listed steelhead and salmon,” said Pilz.

The first salmon species to be listed under the Endangered Species Act was Snake River Sockeye in 1991. Chinook and steelhead, native to Wallowa County’s rivers and streams, were listed in subsequent years.

Threatened and endangered listings drive funding, said Pilz, primarily through the Bonneville Power Administration, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, private foundations and individual donors.

The organization isn’t your average conservation organization, said Pilz. It was started by a diverse set of people — ranchers, tribes, teachers and conservationists — to find a way to work with landowners in a productive way.

The Trust helps put money directly on the ground and does not litigate.

“Now just about every state in the West has at least one trust,” said Pilz. 

For the last seven years the Trust has worked directly with the Nez Perce tribe and farmers who use the five ditches of the Lostine River upstream from the Caudle Lane Bridge, in downtown Lostine. The partnership has saved the river from being completely dewatered
in late summer.

Sonny Hagenah, local rancher and member of the Lostine Ditch Co., said he sees more fish in the river since the agreement, and the Trust has been great to work with.

More recently, the Trust has entered into an instream lease agreement on Joseph Creek below Coyote Campground.

Pilz said his Lostine River work was proving difficult from his office in Portland. At best, he said he could get to Wallowa County once a month. With Maxwell on board, the Trust now has a local presence. Yet, just because Maxwell has an office doesn’t mean he’s been easy to find there lately. Shortly after his arrival, he signed on to help Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Nez Perce Fisheries with spawning ground surveys.

And he’s is right at home on the river, looking for redds, or salmon nests, and doing carcass inventories, with a microbiology degree from the University of Montana and a masters in biology from Southern Oregon University. 

A Colorado native, he first came to Northeast Oregon to work for Fish and Wildlife as a seasonal 10 years ago and has been enamored with the area ever since.

By doing stream surveys on the Imnaha and Lostine rivers and Bear and Big Sheep creeks, waterways most impacted by irrigation diversions, Maxwell said he is getting to know the resources and gaining insight into the local politics.

He said he’s also had a lot of coffee and lunch dates with water users and natural resource agencies.

“We rely heavily on partners and collaboration and it’s hard to get that on the phone,” said Maxwell.

The Trust also has an office in Union staffed by Tony Malmberg. Maxwell said their focus in Northeast Oregon is split between Wallowa County and Catherine Creek, identified by Bonneville Power Authority and the Bureau of Reclamation as areas where restoration projects will get the most bang for the buck.

Maxwell said, “If you can collaborate you can get a lot done and there’s a lot of money out there.”

Pilz said, “The biggest lessons we learned is that we need to tailor our work so it’s not just a win for the river, but for the local community and its economy. We are constantly developing new tools to benefit fish and preserve the agricultural way of life in Eastern Oregon.”

The Enterprise position was created not only to ease travel time for the Trust’s Portland staff, but to have a permanent presence in the community. Maxwell and his dog Cove are delighted with their new digs.

Pilz said the staff at the Portland office think Maxwell has the best job in the organization.