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Umatilla County's primary water sources are the Umatilla River and the Columbia River, which serves as the county's eastern boundary. These rivers are significant for residential and agricultural uses and contribute to the area's breathtaking scenery and numerous recreational opportunities, such as fishing, boating, and wildlife watching.

What people are talking about

Irrigation issues, drought, wild fish revitalization, and flooding.  All fall under the umbrella of climate change, which is taken into serious bipartisan consideration in Umatilla County. Parts of Umatilla County get regular flooding due to poor agricultural practices leading to erosion of riverbanks – which is harmful to property owners and the local steelhead population. The Umatilla Basin Watershed collaborated with other partners and began to form an action plan for future restoration.

In February 2020, a combination of snowmelt and above-average rainfall in the Blue Mountains caused the Umatilla River to flood, resulting in the second major flood in recent years.  Local infrastructure was tested, and many issues were revealed, particularly in the outdated levees.  Along with levee repair and heightening, another mitigation plan was to update the floodplain map because the Umatilla River flooded parts of Pendleton that weren’t a part of the current floodplain. For necessary flood repairs, The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR), were eligible for reimbursement through the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). (2).  people were without heat, plumbing, and hot water during the flood. Two large-scale local employers, Keystone RV Co. and Cor-Tek, were affected by the levee breaks and forced to curtail or suspend operations while they made repairs (1). Impacting local jobs and the economy. Different communities and organizations came together to help everyone through donations and volunteering. The February flood shattered expectations for how high the Umatilla River could rise, flooding areas thought to be beyond the floodplain and causing Umatilla County officials to fortify their flood protection infrastructure. The urgency of addressing flood mitigation issues is compounded by a recent Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation study that anticipates an increased likelihood of flood events due to projections of less snow and more rain in the region. The waters transformed how the region thought about disasters, preparedness, and the importance of long-term recovery. Protecting federally listed steelhead is the primary ecological driver of the assessment in the area. Some of these involved taking stock of past projects, as well as natural and unnatural functions along main flood areas. (2)  At McNary Dam, improving fish passage is prioritized, where federal agencies operating the river's hydro system are required to maintain a 96 percent survival rate for juveniles during springtime and 93 percent over summer. Hydroelectric dams pose an immense barrier across the Columbia River, standing in the way of migratory species. In 2014, a federal biological opinion for salmon in the Columbia Basin was rejected five times by judges ruling against the biological opinion, saying it violates both the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act. (3)  In 2016, Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley pushed to reauthorize a voluntary, cost-share program with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife that pays for installing fish screens and passage devices in four Northwest states. The Fisheries Restoration and Irrigation Mitigation Act were initially passed in 2000 before expiring last year. Wyden and Merkley, the Democratic duo, want to extend FRIMA for $25 million from 2017 to 2024 to ensure wild fish protection(4).

The EPA has identified emerging toxic threats to wild fish, ranging from flame retardants to pharmaceuticals. Those are in addition to what are known as legacy contaminants, including polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCBs, that are now banned by the EPA but still found in products like inks and dyes. High levels of PCBs in the river build up in the fatty tissue of fish. Native fish are among tribes' cultural and traditional First Foods. It is important to encourage more conversations about the health and quality of water in local fisheries as tribes rely heavily on subsistence fisheries. A high value agricultural region dependent on the economy of farming, meeting irrigation needs is a complex process especially as water levels drop every year.  Finding the best balance between the needs of irrigators, creekside residents, and the environment is still in development as regional water conflicts arise. One action plan to bring more water into the basin, The Northeast Oregon Water Association (NOWA) proposed a complex, multi-phase plan of engineering, water rights, and environmental mitigation spread over three distinct areas. The basic framework would allow patrons of the Westland Irrigation District to buy additional water supplies to grow more high-value crops like potatoes and onions. The first project seeks to capitalize on new mitigated irrigation water from the Columbia River. NOWA believes the plan will not be opposed by environmental groups as there has been much conflict and opposition between the water needs of farmers and water needs for endangered fish.. Major funding for water projects came through in the 2015 Legislature, including $11 million specifically reserved for the Umatilla Basin. Yet without a deal for the necessary water rights, the funding alone cannot ensure sustaining progress on water conflicts. A water deal must be certified by the state Water Resources Department.  In lieu of a certified water deal, Umatilla came into play. The Port of Umatilla has a full municipal and industrial water right of 155 cubic feet per second from the Columbia river. One-third of that was already allocated to Hermiston for operating a regional water system intended to lure in new development that will be used for NOWA’s plan. In Umatilla County water safety issues have been unsafe levels of lead in school drinking water, high levels of agricultural nitrates seeped into groundwater and found in residential and agricultural wells.  Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is calling for long-term monitoring of nitrates, bacteria, and pesticides. Excessive levels of nitrate-nitrogen in surface water can cause blooms of aquatic plants and algae that can harm aquatic life. Along with groundwater contamination, fossil fuel pollution is a continual threat and oil spill trainings have been under way for the very real risk of a major crude oil spill happening on the Columbia River. Summer of 2015 the EPA’s  “Clean Water Rule”  passed with new exemptions and loopholes for factory farm and the fossil-fuel industries. The rule allows that certain ditches are excluded from protective jurisdiction, yet the type of ditches described in the exclusion are those that can flow intermittently from factory farms and fracking sites and end up in waterways. Also, the new rule did not adopt the Science Advisory Board's recommendation to include language about what defines a "tributary" and a "perennial” stream. It's extremely important to protect these perennial streams because they flow into the year-round flowing rivers and streams across the state. The same year, to cut back on pollution and eliminate pathways for toxins into the river Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici, and Peter DeFazio, reintroduced legislation that set aside $50 million to clean up the basin and more closely monitor contamination. The Natural Resource Conservation Service reported record-breaking high temperatures across the state have been occurring which doubles the rate of snowmelt that would have been used for irrigation. The Umatilla County Climate Change Focus Group is supported by the Board of Commissioners to help promote education and adaptation to climate change. The group is planning a series of additional workshops covering agriculture, human health, wildlife, fish, water and what individuals can do to conserve resources.

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