Oregon’s 19th century water rights system long prioritized water withdrawals over the value of flowing rivers. With many streams now running dry, reforms are critical for salmon.
The water that feeds Oregon’s creeks, streams, and rivers is one of the state’s most precious assets, sustaining towns and industries, fish and wildlife.
This resource must have felt inexhaustible to the settlers who arrived in the mid-1800s. These settlers allocated water rights on a first-come, first-served basis, creating a system that is still largely in place today. Under Oregon’s “prior appropriation” system, senior users—those with the oldest water rights—can divert water to suit their needs without considering more junior users, or even the rivers and species that rely on them.
Oregon’s water rights system was built for a different time. Today’s challenges need 21st century solutions that reflect the needs of ALL water users. Wild Salmon Center’s Oregon Water Initiative was launched in 2020 to focus on adapting this system for a changing world, while addressing the growing threats to Oregon’s streams and the salmon strongholds they support.
Streamflow and Wild Salmon
Did you know? In most Oregon streams, allocated water rights far exceed natural water flow. This imbalance is particularly acute in warmer months, when water demand peaks and stream flows are lowest.
From summer through fall, many Oregon streams run low—even dry—right as juvenile salmon seek coldwater refuge and adults return to their home waters to spawn. Science has shown that low streamflow is one of the biggest barriers to recovering some of Oregon’s most vulnerable salmon runs.
Climate change is further testing this outdated system. Across Oregon, summers are trending hotter and drier, while winter precipitation is more likely to fall as rain instead of snow. Even the soggy watersheds of the western Cascades face critical water shortages in drought years, which now occur with far greater frequency and intensity than at the advent of Oregon’s water rights system.
Solutions for ALL Water Users
Wild Salmon Center’s Oregon Water Initiative is focused on improving Oregon’s water rights system and finding solutions that make sense for all water users, while protecting streamflow for the state’s prized wild salmon. This work is critical, given the accelerating impacts of climate change on vulnerable salmon runs and the water needs of communities.
WSC’s Oregon Water Initiative aims to:
– Work with legislators to enhance streamflow protections under Oregon law
– Expand options for water users to improve water conservation and restore streamflow
– Increase funding and capacity of the state agencies stewarding Oregon’s water resources
– Facilitate measurement and reporting of water withdrawals from priority salmon streams
– Support research and monitoring that advances understanding of the water needs of Oregon salmonids
– Partner with local groups to advocate for and implement streamflow restoration priorities
– Elevate conservation and recreation voices in state and regional water use conversations
– Support recognition of Tribal water rights and issuance of new instream water rights
– Create space for historically underserved and underrepresented groups to engage in water planning processes
The Oregon Water Initiative builds on Wild Salmon Center’s decades-long campaigns to protect and restore Oregon’s salmon strongholds, working to ensure that these world-class streams flow cold and deep for generations to come.