How Oregonians Can Improve Our Watersheds

Dr. Clint Shock - OSU Malheur Experiment Station - Ontario, OR - April 1998

A watershed is the area drained by a river. All of our land and water resources are encompassed within a system of watersheds. Viewing the landscape and our activities from the perspective of watersheds integrates our concept of the ecosystem. Our present and future welfare and environmental health are entwined with the fate of the water quality and supply, productivity of the land, and wildlife diversity and health. While making decisions that are in our personal economic interests, we must seek to conscientiously protect the present and future watershed values. The standard of living, quality of life, and environmental conditions we leave to our descendants depends on the wise use of land and water resources.

Our activities, the land, the species in each watershed, and the water interact in complex ways. Human activities and resource management practices affect watershed health. Consider these examples: the amount of nutrients and sediment lost from the land to rivers and reservoirs is influenced by our cultivation and irrigation methods; riparian vegetation is sensitive to grazing practices; rangeland fire management, grazing pressures, and off road vehicle traffic all affect upland soil and vegetation, which changes the ability of the land to absorb intense rainfall and rapid snow melt, and greatly affects watershed function. The rate that water leaves the land as runoff sensitively impacts water quality, while enhanced water infiltration provides groundwater recharge and sustained summer stream flow.

While management changes should be considered to protect watershed health, it is inappropriate to generalize management practices with sweeping prescriptions for all sites. The complexity of the natural world requires site-specific management. Management alternatives need to be appropriate at that site and economically feasible for use there. The continual variation of soil, slope, plant and animal communities, and other environmental features impose biological and practical constraints on management alternatives. However, there are general principles that can guide our activities at home, on the farm, and during outdoor recreation:

Recycle products and protect water sources. Be conservation-minded in all activities, but especially near well heads, springs and streams. Properly dispose of human waste distant from water resources when using the outdoors. Recycle chemicals, oils, and other materials. Improper disposal of chemicals and oils can contaminate groundwater, which eventually seeps into streams.

Apply fertilizer judiciously. Adjust the use of chemical fertilizer by considering crop or lawn needs. Test soil and crop tissues for nutrients before applying fertilizer. Nitrates and phosphates enter stream systems through runoff, and they can become detrimental to the health of fish by stimulating excessive growth of algae. For highest use efficiency and least loss, apply nitrogen fertilizer in small measured doses throughout the growing season and closely linked to crop or lawn needs.

Improve irrigation efficiency. Schedule irrigation by measuring soil water on farms, ranches, and landscaped areas. Over-irrigating wastes water that could serve other needs, and has associated costs for pumping, water, and fertilizer leaching. Both under-irrigating and over-irrigating can damage crops or lawns. Drip irrigation provides for more accurate application of both water and soil additives. Drip and sprinkler irrigation systems are more efficient than furrow irrigation but are more expensive and use more energy.

Reduce irrigation induced erosion. Erosion adds excess sediment to stream systems and reservoirs. Techniques like laser leveling, gated pipes, mechanical mulching of straw in irrigation furrows, polyacrylamide added to water, filter strips, and sediment ponds reduce irrigation induced erosion.

Choose grazing methods that foster riparian vegetation and improve rangeland conditions. Tailor grazing strategies to a particular stream or stream reach. Sustainable and effective grazing strategies depend on the ecological characteristics of the stream system. If grazing management alone is insufficient to allow riparian recovery, a landowner may consider planting species adapted to the riparian zone. Consider upland pasture management techniques like reseeding, prescribed burns, juniper removal, and noxious weed control, fencing, or establishment of upslope watering sources away from the riparian zone. Proper upland pasture management can help maintain healthy riparian areas and improve water quality.

Improve water infiltration for dry land crops. Leave grass waterways and reduce tillage. Retain adequate crop residue on the soil surface.

Participate in your local watershed council. Sharing information, ideas and resources with the community that relies on the watershed will help preserve water resources for the future.

For more information, contact your local watershed council, local Soil Water Conservation District, Oregon State University Extension, Oregon Department of Agriculture, Oregon Cattlemen's Association or other producers' organizations.