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Malheur River

Length: 190 miles
Basin area: approximately 4,700 square miles

The Malheur River suffers from low levels of dissolved oxygen throughout, bacteria and legacy pesticide contamination in its lower reaches, and high summer water temperatures in the upper stretches.

Malheur River

© Watershed Professionals Network

Malheur means "bad fortune" or "unhappiness" in French. The river was named in 1826 by fur trappers who lost a stash of furs they had cached along the river. It drains a high desert plateau region south of the Blue Mountains and is a tributary of the Snake River. Despite the similar name, the Malheur River does not flow from or to Malheur Lake, which is located in an enclosed basin to the southwest and is fed by small streams. Property in the Malheur River Basin is primarily publicly owned, with almost half managed by the Federal Bureau of Land Management, and only 35% of property in private ownership. Livestock and agricultural production and processing are the primary economic activities within the basin. Residential and commercial/industrial areas make up only 0.1% of the entire Malheur Basin. The climate is semi-arid, and the river is fed by winter and spring snowmelt and occasional intense thunderstorms in the summer.

A Closer Look

The most distressed stretch of the river in terms of water quality is the lower 67 miles, where it is impacted by agricultural runoff. Multiple dams and reservoirs significantly alter the river, at some points diverting all of its water for irrigation or storage. Stream flows below the reservoirs are now extremely low from fall through spring and unnaturally high during the summer irrigation season. The primary method of irrigation is flood irrigation through ditch systems, which can be highly inefficient. Some instream water rights to protect water for fish exist. But because most of the river's water has been appropriated for other uses with earlier priority dates on their water rights, the instream water rights are not usually met. High water temperatures are likely caused by the arid desert climate and a lack of riparian vegetation. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is working with local partners to develop a clean water plan for the Malheur River.

Additionally, the lower portion of the Malheur Basin is designated as a Groundwater Management Area due to nitrate contamination.

Helping Farmers Help the River

Willow Creek, a tributary of the Malheur River, was placed on the DEQ 303(d) list in 2002 for violating water quality standards for chlorophyll and bacteria. Excessive chlorophyll can indicate that the water has high levels of nutrients, particularly phosphorous, which can be brought to the creek through irrigation induced erosion. Runoff from irrigated pastures and animal feeding operations is also a likely source of bacteria contamination.

To address these problems, the Malheur Watershed Council helped 22 farmers convert from flood irrigation to sprinklers, eliminating nutrient heavy irrigation return flow from more than 2,000 acres. They also worked with the Vale Oregon Irrigation District to bury 38,872 feet of pipe in farms and animal feedlots, eliminating animal access to surface water and preventing bacteria contamination. The irrigation pipes also reduce seepage and evaporation from open ditches, saving over 2,500 acre feet of water per year. Weekly water quality monitoring will enable the partners to document the positive impacts of the project.

All of the involved landowners, with assistance from the Lower Willow Creek Working Group, have made substantial personal and financial commitments to the project, demonstrating their desire to be good watershed stewards. This project's success is inspiring still more progress. The Lower Willow Creek Working Group was recently awarded a $1.9 million grant from Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) for comprehensive restoration of the watershed, and the irrigation district continues work on piping irrigation canals.

Malheur irrigation

The Vale Oregon Irrigation District and the Malheur Watershed Council worked with local farmers to install 38,872 feet of irrigation pipe on local farms. The elimination of seepage and evaporation from open ditches resulted in a water savings of over 2,500 acre feet per year. © Malheur Watershed Council

Browse Oregon's other major rivers:

  1. Columbia
  2. Deschutes
  3. Grande Ronde
  4. John Day
  5. Owyhee
  6. Rogue
  7. Snake
  8. Umpqua
  9. Willamette

Pollutants in the Malheur River

Malheur River Data

Local Resources - Malheur River

Malheur Watershed Council (Ontario) | (541) 881-1417

Malheur Soil and Water Conservation District (Ontario) | (541) 889-2588

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