Water temperature is a concern throughout most of the Umatilla/Willow subbasin from May until early November, when low flows exacerbate the problem. On the 1998 303(d) list, 287 miles of the Umatilla subbasin were listed as impaired for elevated water temperatures including the entire mainstem Umatilla River (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality et al. 2000). The highest water temperatures have been recorded in late July and early August when ambient air temperatures are high. During this period, the Umatilla River warms rapidly from the headwaters to the mouth, reaching sub-lethal (64F to 74F) and incipient lethal temperatures (74F to 80F) for its entire length (Boyd et al. 1999). Most of the tributaries where temperature data were collected also reached sub-lethal and incipient lethal ranges for salmonids (Boyd et al. 1999).
The basin’s coolest mid-summer recorded temperatures are in the North Fork of the Umatilla River and Mission Creek, where maximum summer temperatures are usually below 60F, not exceeding the state standard of 64F (T. Shaw, CTUIR, personal communication, February 19, 2001). The South Fork of the Umatilla River experiences higher summertime temperatures often above 64F, though rarely above 70F. Data indicate a significant increase in temperature from the Umatilla River east of the Gibbon site (RM 80.0) to the Umatilla River at Cayuse Bridge (RM 69.4).
Significant differences in summer water temperatures occur in the North Fork Umatilla (high 50s) and the Meacham drainage (high 60s). The elevated temperature in Meacham Creek causes a 5 degrees Fahrenheit increase in the mainstem Umatilla River. The increase in temperature at Cayuse Bridge (RM 69.4) is attributed to the thermal load from Meacham Creek.
The Wildhorse drainage regularly experiences excessive summertime stream temperatures throughout the entire stream length. Headwaters often exceed 70˚F for long periods in the summer, while lower Wildhorse Creek can often experience stream temperatures exceeding 85˚F.
Sediment and Turbidity
The Umatilla River produces large amounts of sediment, much of which originates from the weathered basalt and unconsolidated loess deposits--the dominant geology in the basin. The primary sources include both bank and upland erosion of tributaries and tributary watersheds (respectively), both of which may be accelerated by land uses (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality 2000). The dominant erosion processes in the subbasin are surface erosion by sheetwash, rills and gullies, and bank erosion (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality 2000). Peak sedimentation usually occurs during rainstorms or snowmelts associated with freeze and thaw periods (Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation 1990).
Neither EPA nor the State of Oregon has established numeric water quality standards for suspended solids or streambed fines. Umatilla Basin fisheries managers, however, determined through basin-specific knowledge and literature review that a 30 nephelometric turbidity units (NTU’s) instream turbidity (not to exceed a 48-hour duration) standard will protect aquatic species (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality 2000). The 30 NTU target was correlated to total suspended solids (TSS) data to derive watershed target concentrations/loading capacities. Streams or watersheds in excess of this value were placed on the 303(d) list for standards violation.
One of the sediment-impaired stream segments that significantly deviated from the target standard was Wildhorse Creek (at its confluence with the Umatilla River), which had a peak turbidity value of over 5,000 NTU measured on April 23, 1997. High levels were also measured in McKay Creek. Wildhorse Creek turbidity mainly results from spring runoff, while McKay’s turbidity is mostly a result of bottom withdrawal of water from the reservoir for flow augmentation. Composite samples of turbidity, collected at various stations during the winter of 1997-1998, show that Tutuilla, Birch, and five sites on the Umatilla mainstem exceeded standards on numerous occasions (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality 2000).
Embeddedness appears to be a problem (over 25%, identified by Chapman and McLeod in 1987 as a conservative estimate) in rearing habitat in two reaches of the upper Umatilla, both in the North Fork. In Meacham Creek, embeddedness has been measured at over 50% in 13 reaches. Surveys conducted by ODFW and CTUIR (Boyd et al. 1999) show that 19 of 42 stream reaches had fine sediment as the dominant substrate. The least managed watersheds typically had the lowest levels of embeddedness (Umatilla National Forest 2000).
pH: Elevated summer temperatures, excessive algal (periphyton) growth, and attendant increases in pH are common during summer months in the upper Umatilla River as it flows from the North and South Fork (forks) of the Umatilla to the Highway 11 Bridge at RM 57.1 (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality 2000). Median pH at Reith Bridge (RM 49.0), decreases with the hypolimnetic releases of water from McKay Reservoir, but then increases downstream at Yoakum Bridge (RM 37.2) (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality 2000). Elevated summertime temperatures and excessive algal growth are likely contributing to high pH levels recorded in Willow Creek, from the mouth upstream to Heppner.
Nitrate: The two stations (Spring Hollow Creek, a tributary to Wildhorse Creek, and Wildhorse Creek) for which nitrate standards are in violation have concentrations (>10 mg/L), which violate general criteria set for public water supplies. Concentrations at these stations may represent a serious health concern for infants and pregnant or nursing women (Oregon Health Division, Environmental Toxicology Section 1990 cited in Oregon Department of Environmental Quality 2000).
Nitrates show up in very low concentrations (<0.10 mg/L total Nitrate) in the upper subwatersheds, slightly elevated levels (<0.40 mg/L) in the middle Umatilla subwatershed, 0.20 – 1.50 mg/L in McKay Creek (downstream of dam), 0.20 – 4.10 mg/L (mostly 0.30 – 0.90 mg/L) in the lower Umatilla subwatershed, and 0.60 – 6.10 at Umatilla RM 2.1 (Purser 1994).
Nitrate levels in many parts of the Lower Umatilla Basin (hereafter LUB) exceed federal drinking water standards of nitrates-nitrogen concentrations of 10mg/l. Elevated nitrate levels can cause potentially fatal blood disorders in infants known as methemoglobinemia or Blue Baby Syndrome. The presence of high nitrates also indicates the presence of other contaminants in the soil and groundwater, including pesticides and microorganisms. High levels of nitrates are also of concern in the LUB as it is a high flood prone area and numerous private wells could be contaminated due to flooding. Due to high concentrations of nitrates-nitrogen levels in the groundwater, DEQ declared the LUB a Groundwater Management Area.
In 1997, in accordance with the Oregon Groundwater Protection Act, the ODEQ declared portions of Morrow and Umatilla Counties (Boardman and Irrigon vicinity) as the Lower Umatilla Groundwater Management Area, commonly known as the Lower Umatilla Basin (LUB). ODEQ and the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) have the responsibility for the progress and success of the Lower Umatilla Groundwater Management Area Action Plan. The Umatilla and Morrow County Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) are the primary entities overseeing implementation of this plan. A memorandum of agreement (MOA) was developed between the SWCDs, ODEQ and ODA. Activities associated with the plan include education and public awareness, cataloging information, developing an implementation strategy, identifying accepted systems of Best Management Practices (BMPs), compiling all existing data, developing and implementing specific plans related to groundwater improvements, identifying data gaps and documenting results.
Ammonia: Most reaches in the basin have low levels of ammonia (less than 0.1 mg/l). Exceptions include the Lower Umatilla River and North Hermiston Drain, which are in violation of EPA ammonia standards, primarily because of excessive temperatures and pH during the summer months (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality 2000). Other problem areas include Butter Creek, where ammonia concentrations have been measured at 0.3 to greater than 0.4mg/L (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality 1998).
Bacteria: Most reaches and tributaries of the Umatilla River upstream of Pendleton have low levels of E. coli bacteria (less than 150 per 100 ml). Areas in the subbasin with high E. coli counts include the middle reaches of Wildhorse Creek (450 to 600 per 100 ml), the Umatilla River near and downstream of the city of Pendleton (greater than 600 per 100ml), and the lower and middle reaches of Butter Creek (greater than 600 per 100 ml) (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality 1998). Bacteria levels are also high in the Balm Fork of Willow Creek.
Phosphorus and Orthophosphorus:Moderate to high (0.1 mg/l to 0.4 mg/l) total phosphorus levels occur in all water bodies upstream of Pendleton. Phosphorus increases dramatically from Pendleton downstream to Birch Creek (greater than 1.6 mg/l). Wildhorse Creek is another source of phosphorus to the Umatilla mainstem, contributing from below 0.4 mg/l to over 1.6 mg/l. High concentrations of phosphorus (O.8 mg/l to 1.6 mg/l) also occur in the lower reaches of Birch Creek downstream of Pilot Rock (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality 1998). Low concentrations of phosphorus (below 0.4 mg/l) occur in the lower mainstem of the Umatilla River from Birch Creek to Hermiston. Downstream of Hermiston, phosphorus concentrations increase to levels between 0.8 mg/l to 1.6 mg/l and then decline as the river reaches the Columbia River (0.4 mg/l to 0.8 mg/l) (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality 1998). Orthophosphorus levels throughout the Umatilla River basin are generally low (0.05 mg/l to 0.10 mg/l). Exceptions occur at the mouth of Butter Creek and in the Umatilla mainstem downstream of Hermiston, where concentrations increase to greater than 0.20 mg/l (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality 1998).
At one time grasslands occupied an extensive area in eastern Oregon. The major dominants included bunch grasses such as bluebunch wheatgrass, sheep fescue and giant wild rye (Shelford and Hanson 1947). The native grasses offered high quality grazing for livestock. During the droughts of the 1930’s one cattleman remarked, “when the first settlers came to the country there was an abundance of fine grass. The valleys were covered with tall meadow grass that was cut and stored for winter feed. The open hillsides all had a heavy stand of bunchgrass and scarcely any sagebrush” (Ewing, 1938). He later stated that it was now all cheatgrass and scablands. Remnant strips of the grassland steppe vegetation still exist throughout farmed areas, but are generally confined to areas inappropriate for farming.
According to Houle (1995), roots of indigenous bunchgrasses in the Palouse Region of southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon, can extend 25 feet or deeper into the earth, and some of the deep root stalks live over 100 years. Such characteristics make native grasses instrumental in developing soils, controlling soil erosion, conserving water and providing wildlife habitat. Native bunchgrasses produce from seed, not by runners or rootstalks. Many native grass communities in the Umatilla subbasin have been lost because the plants were unable (they were burned, over-grazed, mowed, plowed or irrigated) to mature and spread seed. The combined stress of grazing and fire has allowed rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus) and cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) to invade and dominate this association, rapidly reducing the cryptogamic crust (Poulton 1955).
As elevation increases, the grasslands intermingle with shrub/scrub plants, eventually grading into coniferous forests in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. As of December 1988, 21 sensitive plant species were located during a survey of 25% of the Umatilla National Forest (Umatilla National Forest 1990) (Table 4). Riparian vegetation on the mainstem Umatilla River and many tributaries is in poor condition, with approximately 70% of 422 miles inventoried identified as needing riparian improvements (United States Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service 1982). Riparian vegetation in the Willow Creek subbasin is estimated at less than 25% of historic levels (Environmental Protection Agency, Enviromapper, 1998). Figure 17 shows the vegetative cover types occurring throughout the Umatilla and Willow subbasins.
Table 4. Sensitive plant species on the Umatilla National Forest (Umatilla National Forest 1990).
Figure 17. Land cover types occurring throughout the Umatilla/Willow subbasin
Major Land Uses
The majority of land in the Umatilla subbasin is privately owned (Table 5). Thirty-seven percent of the drainage is managed by federal agencies, including the U. S. Forest Service, which manages over 90% of federally owned lands. Other landowners in the subbasin include the State of Oregon, Umatilla County, cities, and the Umatilla Indian Reservation, much of which is privately owned (Figure 18) (Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation 1990).
Table 5. Land ownership and percentage of area owned in the Umatilla/Willow Subbasin.
Land Area Owned (acres)
Percentage of Total Area
U. S. Forest Service
Bureau of Land Management
Corps of Engineers
Department of Defense
U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Umatilla Indian Reservation1
State of Oregon
1 includes non-Indian owned land on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) estimated the total resident Indian population on or near the Reservation at more than 2,400 in 1998 (including Indians enrolled with other Tribes). The August 1998 CTUIR membership numbered 2,140 members living on and off Reservation lands. The Reservation is also home to about 1,700 non-Indians.
Federal legislation in the late 1800’s reduced the Reservation from 245,699 acres to its current total of approximately 172,000 acres (including 158,000 acres on the principal Reservation and 14,000 acres on the South Reservation, including portions in the upper Grande Ronde subbasin) (Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation 2000). Current landownership within Reservation boundaries includes 12,041 acres owned by the Tribal government and 71,757 acres retained in trust by Tribal members (L. Broncheau, CTUIR, personal communication, February 2001). Non-Indians own the majority of remaining lands on the Reservation. The Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 allotted 100,000 acres on the Reservation to non-Indians (Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation 1996).
Figure 18. Land ownership in the Umatilla/Willow subbasin
The economies of Umatilla and Morrow Counties are largely natural resource-based, with the majority of the land used for agricultural purposes, as defined by the proportion of the total area designated as cropland and pasture (Figure 19). The acreage defined as rangeland or forestland comprises the remaining area of the subbasin, supporting both the livestock and timber industries. Agricultural land, both dryland and irrigated, comprise about 42% of the Umatilla Basin area (Umatilla Soil and Water Conservation District 2001). Rangeland and range-forest transition areas account for another 42%, and the remaining portion of the basin is approximately 13% forest and 3% urban and developed areas (Umatilla Soil and Water Conservation District 2001).
Farming is no longer among the largest sectors of the economy in either county, and is the slowest growing portion of the local economy, accounting for no more than 5% of county earnings in 1997 (U.S. Bureau of Census et al. 2000). Although farming is not one of the largest income producing industries in either county, it is still the most prevalent land use (Figure 19).
Economically, the Umatilla Basin is regarded as one of the state’s major agricultural centers. Umatilla County ranks second in the state in agricultural commodity sales at $275 million (Umatilla Soil and Water Conservation District 2001). Wheat and other grains are the major commodities, followed by cattle and potatoes. Hay and vegetables are also large contributors with vineyards, canola, and other alternative crops emerging as new commodities (Table 6). Currently 10-15% of the cropland has been retired from crop production, enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program and seeded to grass, shrubs and trees (Figure 20). The timber industry has declined dramatically in recent years primarily due to harvest reductions on national forest lands. Food processing, mainly located in the lower basin, has continued to expand.
Table 6. U. S. census data for crop production in Umatilla County (Bureau of Census et al. 2000).
Total Cropland (acres)
Harvested Cropland (acres)
Irrigated Land (acres)
Hay-alfalfa, silage (acres)
Figure 19. Land use in the Umatilla/Willow subbasin
Figure 20. Agricultural lands within the Umatilla/Willow subbasin
While the total acreage dedicated to cropland has decreased over the past fifteen years, the amount of harvested land has increased. The total value of crops has also steadily risen. This has resulted from increases in irrigation and a shift by farmers to higher value crops (U.S. Bureau of Census et. al. 2000). Irrigated crops grown in the lower basin include alfalfa, small grains, mint, corn, potatoes, onions, watermelons and asparagus (USDA Soil Conservation Service 1988). Cropland agriculture within the Umatilla Subbasin can be divided into two distinct categories: irrigated and non-irrigated. Irrigated crop farming extends from above Three Mile Falls Dam at RM 4 upstream to the mouth of McKay Creek at approximately RM 51, including portions of the Butter, Birch and McKay Creek Drainages. A few water withdrawals for agricultural crops do occur upstream of McKay Creek and the city of Pendleton. Dryland crop farming occurs primarily in the mid Umatilla Watershed, in general from the mouth of McKay Creek upstream to the vicinity of Cayuse on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and within the Tutuilla/Patawa and Wildhorse Creek subwatersheds (Figure 20).
The primary non-irrigated crop practices occurring within the basin include small grain-pea rotations and winter wheat/summer fallow operations (Shaw and Sexton 2000). Some of the most productive agricultural soils in the Umatilla Subbasin occur within the Wildhorse Creek watershed, more specifically within the Greasewood, Sand Hollow, Gerking and Spring Hollow Creek Drainages (Shaw and Sexton 2000). According to the Soil Survey of Umatilla County Area, Oregon (1988) many of the properties located within these drainages classify as “prime farmlands” because the silt loam soils present have the ability to sustain high crop yields with minimal inputs of energy and economic resources (USDA, Soil Conservation Service 1988).
The high fertility of this region has been extensively exploited, resulting in considerable resource impacts. Erosion of topsoil from this area, primarily during winter months, results from current farming practices. Poor agricultural practices common throughout the subbasin include farming in public right-of-ways, failing to leave crop residue or maintain tilth, lack of contour plowing and cultivation, and the absence of terraces, water diversions, or grass waterways (Shaw and Sexton 2000). Eroded soils are deposited into roadside ditches and waterways. Vast wetland areas within the Greasewood Creek, Sandhollow Creek and Gerking Creek drainages have been converted to traditional wheat-fallow rotations. Farmers in these areas have removed nearly all upland and riparian vegetative cover and restricted streams to single “ditches” in an effort to maximize crop production and control seepage and alkali. One elderly resident remembered these systems supporting major waterfowl populations and believes that waterfowl use has shifted to irrigation circles in the lower basin (T. Shaw, personal communication, February 2001). Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) personnel estimate that as much as 130 tons/acre of top soil erode annually from cropland fields in the Greasewood Creek Drainage (B. Adelman, Natural Resource Conservation Service, personal communication January 1996), a 20,452 acre area where croplands comprise 98 % of the area. While a few farmers implement soil saving measures within the Wildhorse Creek watershed, most fail to apply conservation-based agriculture, resulting in high rates of erosion.
The largest dryland crop erosion problems in the Umatilla subbasin result from traditional winter wheat/summer fallow operations. Michael Stoltz (1999), former Umatilla County – Oregon State University Agriculture Extension Agent, indicated that tremendous soil erosion from dryland wheat areas occurs due to the summer fallow cropping system using the moldboard plow. The winter wheat/summer fallow monoculture cropping system of Oregon’s Columbia basin in 9” to 20” rainfall zones is not sustainable, either biologically or economically (Rasmussen et al. 1993). According to the Agricultural Research Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), this cropping system is subject to tremendous water erosion problems, especially when rain falls on frozen soils. Summer fallow has decreased the soil organic matter to half or less of its original levels under native grassland, contributing to erosion and crusting problems after seeding dryland crops. Annual cropping, compared to winter wheat/fallow, saves approximately six tons of soil per acre on sixty bushels of winter wheat per acre land and three tons per acre on 45 bushels per acre land. No till annual cropping reduces soil erosion to near zero per acre (NRCS RUSLE formulas; Stoltz 1999).
Many of the soil conservation approaches encouraged today are not new concepts. Bennett (1947) recognized as early as the 1930’s in wheat areas that, “fair to good control of erosion can be obtained by plowing down stubble (rather than burning it) in such a way that part of the straw protrudes above the ground, affording considerable surface protection, especially against wind”. Some early local pioneers recognized that such practices provided benefits over 100 years ago. A June 16, 1890 newspaper account regarding wheat farming within the Wildhorse Creek Drainage states, “T.H. Lacefield, who has returned from a tour of the Adams neighborhood, says that the farmers are this year learning a practical lesson—not to burn their stubbles. These catch and hold the snow, preventing it from being blown from the soil, and more moisture is thus secured. The places where snow had drifted during the winter were easily distinguishable by the better growth and condition of the grain.” (Adams Ladies Club, 1993). Major steps need to be taken to improve dryland crop practices and to reduce impacts to resources from traditional methods.
A variety of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) incentive programs are currently available to crop growers through the local NRCS and county Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices. Payments to growers with commodity crops have been, and still are a significant part of most farm budgets. Commodity crops are commonly defined as annually cropped food and fiber crops. Resource treatment options as a requirement for federal payments has varied greatly.
Prior to 1985, deficiency payments had limited conservation requirements. Set-aside or non-cropped acres had a minimum cover requirement; cropped acreage had no conservation requirement. Conservation Practices were implemented under what was called the “Agricultural Conservation Program” (ACP). ACP made cost share available for individual practices. These practices included grass waterways, tree plantings, ponds, terraces, and other conservation practices. ACP is no longer available.
Currently, the “Environmental Quality Incentives Program” (EQIP) offers limited cost-share funds. Under this program growers are contracted to install a conservation system of practices, rather than an individual practice. The conservation needs are evaluated on a total farm basis. Contracts are awarded on a bid basis. While this can be a good buy for USDA, EQIP has had limited grower acceptance. This is partially due to a lack of funding for EQIP at the federal level.
The most significant federal agriculture program in Umatilla County over the past 15 years has been the “Conservation Reserve Program” (CRP). Under this program, growers get paid on an annual per acre basis to retire and set aside cropland areas. Contracts can be from ten to 15 years depending on specific practices involved. There are two types of sign-ups; a standard sign-up, which is on a bid basis, and during a designated sign-up period; the other option is a special practice sign-up, which can occur at any time. The special practice sign-up is for specific areas and often includes native grasses, trees, and shrubs. The CRP program has achieved significant conservation and wildlife habitat benefits. Within Umatilla County, nearly 100,200 acres are currently under this program or soon to be placed under the program. This makes up one-seventh of all cropland areas in Umatilla County (Figure 20). In addition to grass cover, more than 1,400 acres of trees and shrubs have been planted under Continuous CRP funding (Table 7).
Table 7. Umatilla County practices in acreage from 1986-2001 (U. S. Department of Agriculture 2000)
Conservation Reserve Practice
wildlife food plots
wildlife food plots
Other conservation-based programs include the Direct Seeding Program. The program is a partnership between the Umatilla County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), Oregon State University (OSU) – Umatilla County Extension Service, EPA, ODEQ, and Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB). The Direct Seeding Program provides growers with an incentive payment of $10 per acre for up to 200 acres per producer, up to three crop rotations per entity. The fall 1997-spring 1998 program served 25 growers and 3800 acres of incentive payments, fall 1998 - spring 1999 program served 27 growers and 4300 acres of incentives, and the fall 1999 - spring 2000 program served 41 producers and 11,580 acres of incentives. An additional five growers agreed to a long-term demonstration cropping system over a period of five years on 726 acres during 1999-2000. The total incentives paid over this period of time are over $154,000 with an additional 59,000 acres of direct seeding without incentives. The current program is funded through 2001.
As elsewhere in the United States, farm sizes in the Umatilla Subbasin are increasing, while the numbers of farms are decreasing. Economy of scale is forcing the smaller family owned and operated farms to sell out to their larger neighbors.
While some small farms have managed to survive by targeting niche markets, the large-scale operations control the most land (Table 8). These large-scale operations also exercise more influence on agricultural policy. The difference in average farm size between Morrow and Umatilla Counties is a factor of climate. The climate in Morrow county is more suited to growing grain crops, whereas the growing season in Umatilla county is shorter and more suited for production of rangeland vegetation and diversified crops (U. S. Bureau of Reclamation 1954).
Table 8. U. S. census data for farms in Umatilla and Morrow Counties (Bureau of Census et al. 2000).
1997 Census of Agriculture
Number of Farms
Land in Farms (acres)
No. of Farms (1-9 acres)
No. of Farms (10-49 acres)
No. of Farms (50-179 acres)
No. of Farms (180-499 acres)
No. of Farms (500-999 acres)
No. of Farms (>1000 acres)
Average Size of Farms (acres)
In the Umatilla subbasin, 94% of lands managed by the Umatilla National Forest (UNF) support a mixed forest. Predominant conifer species include ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, grand fir, white fir, sub-alpine fir, western larch, Englemann spruce, and lodgepole pine. According to Langston (1995), millions of acres in the Blue Mountains have changed from predominant ponderosa pine forests to fir-dominated forests. On the Umatilla National Forest, ponderosa pine was 34% of tree volume in 1931, and only 16% in 1981 (Langston 1995). Forty-three percent of the Umatilla National Forest was dominated by open pine stands in 1905 and in 1991 only a seventh of those forests remained pine (Langston 1994).
A proportionately low percentage of Umatilla National Forest acres are harvested for timber; moreover, timber harvests have declined substantially over the past 20 years (Table 9).
Table 9. Timber sales in the Umatilla subbasin by UNF (Umatilla National Forest 2000)
Period of Harvest
Timber Sales (acres)
Harvest Rate (ac/yr)
1990-1994 (5 years)
1980-1989 (10 years)
1970-1978 (9 years)
1960-1969 (10 years)
1958-1959 (2 years)
Harvest primarily occurs in the North and South Forks of the Umatilla River, accounting for 32% of timber cut on the forest, and Meacham Creek, which constitutes an estimated 18% of the harvest (Umatilla National Forest 2000). This harvest has occurred on only 10% of the forested land since the early 1960’s (Umatilla National Forest, 2000). Most of the timber sale activity occurs on slopes less than 30% (Umatilla National Forest 2000). The Umatilla National Forest has designated a large area surrounding the North Fork of the Umatilla River as a Wilderness Area, precluding it from further harvest activities.
Two of the subwatersheds occurring within the National Forest are designated as areas of concern due to extensive (greater than 15% of the forested area) clearcutting: Spring Creek (28.2%) and Upper Meacham/Wilbur subwatersheds (28.6%). Several other subwatersheds are of concern due to high road densities (over 2.0 miles/square mile): Upper North Fork of the Umatilla, Buck Creek, Thomas Creek, Spring Creek, Shimmiehorn Creek, Upper South Fork of the Umatilla; East Meacham and Owsley (Umatilla National Forest 2000). Forests retard runoff during heavy rains and periods of rapid melting of snows, and increase the amount of water that percolates into the ground. By decreasing runoff and increasing percolation, forested areas lower flood levels and raise low water levels (Whitaker, 1947). Historical timber harvests in steep headwater portions of the Umatilla subbasin, such as within the Wildhorse Creek watershed, has likely altered runoff rates by reducing riparian and water storage capacities (Shaw and Sexton 2000).
Historical harvests of ponderosa pines and suppression of fires by federal foresters have largely resulted in firs replacing ponderosa pines in eastern Oregon. When fires were suppressed in the open ponderosa pine forests, firs grew faster than pines in the resultant shade and soon dominated the forest (Langston 1995). The firs are not as resistant to insect attacks, and they provide far more fuel to sustain intense fires, killing entire stands of trees (Langston 1995). Historically, only light fires burned through open pines every 10 years or so, few fires resulted in major losses of timber (Langston 1995).
In the early-1900’s, the subbasin was intensively grazed by sheep. A 1908 advertisement in Sunset Magazine
(http://cgi.ebay.com/aw-cgi/eBayISAPI.d11?ViewItem&item=504718931) indicated that in 1907 Umatilla County shipped 6,000,000 pounds of wool, marketed 185,000 sheep, and shipped 125,000 head of beef cattle (these numbers would have also included livestock from the Oregon portion of the Walla Walla subbasin). Cattle have since exceeded the number of sheep, and in 1990, comprised the majority of livestock grazed in Umatilla County (Figure 21). Some of the watersheds where grazing is the primary or secondary land use include Spring Hollow Creek, Mission Creek, Buckaroo Creek, Squaw Creek, McKay Creek, Moonshine Creek and Cottonwood Creek (Shaw and Sexton 2000)
Figure 21. Umatilla County livestock (Oliver et al. 1994). NOT PROVIDED
Although the value and apportioning of crops has been in flux over the past 15 years, the value of livestock has remained relatively stable (OSU 1997). A slow, steady increase in the numbers of livestock raised in Umatilla County is noteworthy, given the decline in red meat consumption in the U.S. (Table 10).
Table 10. Umatilla County Livestock Summary (Oregon State University, 1997)
Horses and Mules
The Forest Service has granted 17 grazing allotments in the Umatilla National Forest (Umatilla National Forest, 2000). Approximately 48,800 acres (33%) of the Umatilla National Forest is covered in grasslands, making it highly suitable for grazing.
Over-grazing has had major impacts on native vegetation throughout the Umatilla subbasin. Problems associated with over-grazing have included (1) overstocking of pastures and range areas, reducing the total amount of native vegetation, (2) replacing native vegetation with plants of low forage value and (3) reduction of surface cover, resulting in increased surface and wind erosion (Shelford and Hanson 1947). For instance, in mid and low elevation portions of the Wildhorse Creek watershed, overgrazing of livestock and absence of pasture rotation plans have contributed to poor water quality and loss of floodplain function (Shaw and Sexton 2000).
According to Langston (1995), large sheep herds, which were common in Umatilla County by the mid-1880’s, were not the cause of range destruction, but rather the result. Cattle had already overgrazed the range to the extent that sheep did far better under the poor range conditions because they required less water and forage to survive the harsh eastern Oregon winters. By the 1890’s, native grasses, though naturally recuperative under conservative use, were partially destroyed by unregulated grazing by sheep as well as by cattle (Brown 1947). Large Tribal horse herds also likely impacted native grasses in the region. Early accounts of the Umatilla River country report that the Tribes owned a tremendous number of horse (Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation 1996). Around 1870, according to early reports, one Indian chief owned a band of 5,000 horses (Harper, et al. 1948). As early as 1811, Wilson Price Hunt noted that there were 2,000 horses for 34 Indian families at just one winter encampment adjacent to the Umatilla River (Langston 1995).
Increasing farm sizes and efficiency require fewer people to work the land; however, the rise in manufacturing, processing, and job opportunities has resulted in a steady influx of people into Umatilla and Morrow counties. In 1995, the population of Umatilla County was 64,040, with a growth of 9% since 1985 (Bureau of Census et al. 2000). Morrow County is more sparsely populated, with a total resident population of 8,922 in 1995, but has a higher growth rate of 18% since 1985 (Bureau of Census et al. 2000). Table 11 shows general population data for cities occurring within the subbasin.
Development of homes, farm buildings and roads within the floodplain have straightened and confined stream channels in many portions of the subbasin, and have eliminated riparian vegetation (Shaw and Sexton 2000). In areas such as the lower McKay Creek and Mission Creek watersheds, residential land uses have encroached on the floodplain. When combined with other land uses, this has resulted in increased stream velocities, increased instream gravel movement, and has significantly reduced the amount of available fish and wildlife habitat.
Table 11. Population in the Umatilla/Willow subbasin (State of Oregon 2000; http://www.placesnamed.com/M/i/mission.asp)
Impoundments and Irrigation Projects
Two major storage reservoirs exist in the Umatilla subbasin: McKay Reservoir, which has a total active capacity of 73,800 acre-feet, and Cold Springs Reservoir, which has a total active capacity of 44,650 acre-feet (http://dataweb.usbr.gov/html/umatilla.html). Flows from the reservoirs are routed through six major Bureau of Reclamation project irrigation diversions located in the lower subbasin (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality 2000). These flows supply water to local irrigation districts, companies and non-incorporated groups, including the Stanfield Irrigation District (SID), Westland Irrigation District (WID), the Hermiston Irrigation District (HID), the West Extension Irrigation District (WEID), and the Teel Irrigation District (TID) (T. Justus, Oregon Water Resources Department, personal communication, February 2001).
The reservoirs were constructed in the early 20th century as part of the Umatilla Basin Project, which was designed to supply irrigation flows to irrigation districts during high-demand summer months. The project, however, dewatered the Umatilla River for several months each year and blocked fish passage. The Congressional Act of March 11, 1976 (90 Stat. 205, Public Law 94-288) reauthorized McKay Dam and Reservoir for irrigation, flood control, fish and wildlife resources, recreation, and safety of dams (http://dataweb.usbr.gov/html/umatilla.html). Following longstanding water disputes in the 1970’s, Congress passed the Umatilla Basin Project Act on October 28, 1988 (102 Stat. 2791, Public Law 100-557). The Act provides a phased approach to restoring instream flows for anadromous fish in the Umatilla River by altering the existing Umatilla Basin Project (http://dataweb.usbr.gov/html/umatilla.html). Target flows were set for the lower reaches of the Umatilla River, and work has been completed on the inter-basin transfer of water for irrigation from the Columbia River. While it does not increase flows year-round, the Umatilla Basin Project does increase flows during critical salmon migration periods in the spring and fall. Phase I of the Umatilla Basin Project, completed in 1993, pumps water from the Columbia River to the WEID to assist when live flows in the Umatilla River drop below target values. In 1995, the first part of Phase II was completed. This pumps water from the Columbia River to satisfy the HID’s winter water right for filling Cold Springs Reservoir when live flows drop below target values. The second part of Phase II began in 1999 and involved the SID. When live flows drop below target levels, Columbia River water is transferred to the SID, leaving the water reserved for the SID in McKay Reservoir for fisheries use. This amounts to 24,967 ac-ft of water for use in maintaining instream flow in the Umatilla River below McKay Creek. Phase III, involving the WID is currently under negotiation.
Habitat surveys by Contor (et al. 1997) document the effects of McKay Reservoir water releases on salmonid habitat suitability. Surveys determined that hypolimnetic releases of cool water during early summer months kept temperatures suitable for salmonids in areas between Westland dam and the McKay Creek confluence. The discharge, however, is not continuous during the summer, and water temperatures can become extreme when releases are stopped. In addition, warmer epilimnetic waters can be discharged upon the depletion of the hypolimnion, further contributing to unsuitable habitat conditions (Contor et al. 1997).
Similar to other subbasins that rely on diverted surface water for irrigation, the Umatilla has had problems with passage, entrainment, and injuries to fish at points of diversion (POD). In an effort to address this problem, outdated juvenile and adult fish passage facilities were reconstructed between 1988 and 1994 at five major irrigation dams on the lower Umatilla River. Reconstructions followed design standards set by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) conducted studies to evaluate screen efficiency and migration survival of juvenile salmonids between 1988 and 1994 (Knapp and Ward 1990, Hayes et al. 1992, Cameron and Knapp 1993, Cameron et al. 1994, 1995, 1997). From 1991 – 1995, most test fish passing through the updated bypass facilities and fish ladders with negligible injury (P<0.10) (Knapp 2000 in review). Between 1995 and 2000, subsequent evaluations identified salmonid outmigration survival (refer to Knapp et al. 1996, 1998a, 1998b, 2000).
The vast majority of protected area acreage lies within the Umatilla National Forest. The most important of these is the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness Area, a 20,300 acre refuge, set aside to ensure high quality streams and wildlife habitat. Table 12 provides a summary of all protected lands within the Umatilla National Forest. While the reasons and methods of protection differ, each area is similar in that its unique characteristics merit special methods of preservation. Table 13 delineates those areas in the Umatilla subbasin protected and/or managed using a conservation strategy.
Table 12. Protective management designations and relative area for lands within the Umatilla National Forest. (Umatilla National Forest 2000)
Management for Scenic and Recreation Purposes
Developed Recreation (ski area, campgrounds)
Grass Tree Mosaic (harvest only if wildlife habitat is met)
Timber and Big Game (scheduled harvest, habitat emphasis)
High Ridge Evaluation Area
Table 13. Areas in the Umatilla subbasin that are protected and/or are managed using a conservation strategy.