A Wallowa County ranch figures to save 1 billion gallons of water annually through a series of conservation projects, such as adding sprinklers and forgoing irrigation during peak summer months.

The Freshwater Trust, an environmental nonprofit with offices in Portland, announced it is working with Wolfe Ranch to upgrade irrigation infrastructure, transfer points of diversion and lease water rights on the farm to benefit endangered salmon in the Lostine River.

Funding comes from a $1.4 million grant awarded by the Oregon Water Resources Department. Irrigation upgrades are also expected to boost crop yields by 5 to 20 percent on the ranch.

“We’ve formed lasting relationships with dozens of farmers and ranchers who understand conservation isn’t just about protecting fish,” said Aaron Maxwell, flow restoration project manager for The Freshwater Trust, who works out of Enterprise. “It’s about the longevity of their farms, economies and entire communities.”

Nearly 1,100 acres of forage and grain crops will be converted to pivot sprinklers as opposed to flood irrigation at the ranch — which Maxwell compared to the difference between letting your hose run into the yard, or watering just the section that needs it most.

“In the face of present and future water scarcity, modernizations like this will only become more imperative,” he said.

Ditching flood irrigation may also have a positive effect on water quality, Maxwell said, reducing the amount of standing water in fields that can become contaminated with sediment, bacteria and toxins before draining back into streams.

Water saved through the irrigation upgrades will be transferred back into the Lostine River, which harbors summer chinook and steelhead populations. Wolfe Ranch will also voluntarily abstain from irrigating in August and September, when the river reaches critically low water levels.

The changes may allow Wolfe Ranch, a sixth-generation family operation, to begin growing more high-value food crops, which could have a ripple effect down the entire Wallowa County agricultural industry. Local businesses are already slated to provide approximately $2 million in construction materials and labor.

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

The Freshwater Trust has been working with farms and ranches on the Lostine River for more than a decade, Maxwell said, after chinook runs were nearly wiped out in the 1990s. The organization was also awarded $114,265 from the Water Resources Department last year to study whether irrigation efficiencies could help protect salmon on upper Catherine Creek in Union County.

Woody Wolfe, owner of Wolfe Ranch, said water scarcity and quality issues aren’t going to simply go away.

“Projects like this help further the responsible use of our natural resources while benefiting the environment,” Wolfe said.

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