Status: ORANGE ALERT
Length: 186 miles
Basin area: approximately 6,000 square miles
The Owyhee has some significant toxic pollution, including arsenic, mercury, bacteria and legacy pesticides, in addition to high temperatures.
© Jim Labbe
The Owyhee River was named in the 1800s for three Hawaiian fur trappers. It drains 11,049 square miles in Nevada, Idaho, and Oregon. The Owyhee begins at its headwaters in Nevada, flows through Idaho, and crosses into southeastern Oregon, where it eventually flows into the Snake River. From the Oregon/Idaho border to the Owyhee Reservoir (formed by the Owyhee Dam), the river flows through deeply incised canyons in a remote, arid and almost unpopulated area. The Owyhee is classified as a National Wild and Scenic River. Recreational use is increasing despite the difficulty of access. The desert canyons of the Owyhee basin support an ecologically significant and unique diversity of wildlife and plant species, including large populations of California bighorn sheep and sage grouse. Currently, 49 species of fish inhabit the Owyhee subbasin, including 25 native and 11 sensitive species. Anadromous fish (such as salmon) have been extinct in the Owyhee since the Owyhee Dam was completed in 1933. The area downriver of the dam supports irrigated agriculture. Ranching is a primary economic activity in the basin.
A Closer Look
Water quality impairment on the Owyhee can be linked to historic and present land use activities as well as to the natural geology of the area. The arid climate, sudden storm events and cyclic drought cycles lead to natural erosion, which is compounded when cattle and wildlife concentrate in riparian areas and around seeps and springs. Improper management of livestock grazing and agricultural activities have impacted water quality and resulted in the removal of riparian vegetation. Historic mining operations still impact the river today through elevated concentrations of heavy metals, such as mercury, in sediments. The state has issued fish consumption advisories for the Owyhee Reservoir due to high concentrations of mercury. Legacy pesticides and their breakdown products have been detected at sites along the Owyhee River below irrigated farmland and in drain water return canals.
Landowners Leading the Way
Jesse and Pam White are cattle ranchers who took an interest in the way their cattle operation affects the environment. The Whites came to Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) in 2001 with $69,000 of their own money to invest in a project to move their feedlot a mile away from the banks of the Owyhee River. The project would allow the Whites to restore the riverbank and reduce the risk of nitrates and bacteria entering the river. OWEB provided a $91,000 grant. The Whites, with the assistance of the Owyhee Watershed Council, the Malheur Soil and Water Conservation District, state and federal agency personnel, and the Boy Scouts, relocated their feedlot and installed piping to deliver stockwater to troughs at the new location. The Whites then fenced off the riparian area along the river, including the old feedlot, and reseeded the land with native grasses and willow trees to filter sediment, utilize nutrients, control erosion, provide shade, and retain water in the soils. Revegetating the stream bank will not only improve water quality in the Owyhee River and help implement the Agricultural Water Quality Management Area Plan, but also restore fish and wildlife habitat. People like the Whites are leaders in their community, and by restoring their own land they demonstrate to their neighbors that successful ranching operations can contribute to good stewardship of the valuable natural resources in the Owyhee Basin.
Browse Oregon's other major rivers:
Browse Oregon's other major rivers: