Malheur County farmer Jerry Erstrom lauds such measures as sedimentation ponds along with furrow and sprinkler irrigation as good methods to cut down on soil erosion and help improve water quality. (The Enterprise/Max Egener).

WILLOWCREEK — The Malheur River basin has supported livestock grazing and irrigated agriculture since the 1930s. But runoff has taken a toll on waterways, leaving them half as clean as the average river in Oregon.

The Malheur River and its tributaries, including Willow Creek and Bully Creek, have received the lowest water quality ratings in the state for the last decade, according to data collected by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

The agency collects water quality data from rivers across the state every two months and provides a water quality score for each monitoring site along a river. The scores range from 10 to 100 with higher scores indicating better water quality.

The average score for sites along the Malheur River and its tributaries is 31 — the lowest average of any basin in Oregon. That puts it in the “very poor” quality category, according to the DEQ. Four sites include data going back to 2008 and two other sites have data since 2012.

The statewide average score for the last decade is 76.

The agency’s bimonthly water quality monitoring program doesn’t include toxic contaminant monitoring. But DEQ has a separate, toxics monitoring program that collected data at two sites on the Malheur River in 2011 and two more sites in 2013.

Lori Pillsbury, who heads that monitoring at DEQ, was most concerned with the detection of seven pesticides currently being used as well as two currently-banned pesticides that persist in the environment -- DDT and dieldrin.

The Malheur and Owyhee River basins were also the only ones in the state containing the pesticide methomyl — a highly toxic insecticide, according to a 2015 DEQ toxics monitoring report.

Pillsbury said methomyl was likely found here and nowhere else because farmers are using it for an insect or crop unique to this area.

“I think it’s important to note that while toxics are not at concerning levels, we are finding things that are making it into the river,” Pillsbury said.

The state doesn’t have enough data to determine if these toxic chemicals pose an immediate risk to human health, according to Pillsbury. She added that DEQ plans to continue monitoring toxic chemicals in the region.

The agency has been aware of the Malheur River basin’s low water quality for decades.

In late 1990s and early 2000s, DEQ declared that parts of the Malheur River and its tributaries failed to meet federal water quality standards for dissolved oxygen, algae, bacteria, and legacy pesticides.

Dissolved oxygen and algae reduce habitat for aquatic organisms such as fish. E. coli and fecal coliform from livestock waste pose health hazards to humans if the bacteria are ingested. Legacy pesticides such as DDT and Dieldrin can kill aquatic life.

The amount of pollutants such as phosphorus — a nutrient which runs off fields from fertilizers and influences algae growth and dissolved oxygen levels — would have to be reduced by as much as 87 percent for the river to meet water quality standards, according to a 2010 DEQ report.

Bacterial contamination such as E. coli and fecal coliform would have to be reduced by as much as 83 percent to meet standards.

The numbers intimidated scientists at DEQ, said John Dadoly, the primary author of the 2010 DEQ report.

“We looked at the amount these pollutants would have to be reduced and it was pretty daunting,” Dadoly said.

Malheur River’s pollution is considered by the government to be “nonpoint source” because it comes from a broad geographic area instead of a single point. Addressing the problem, therefore, involves DEQ partnering with local agencies and organizations to create improvement strategies for the basin.

The 2010 report said DEQ was counting on other agencies to reduce that pollution.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture and local irrigation districts were tasked with implementing practices to improve water quality. The DEQ report didn’t set a deadline for that work.

But local organizations and private land owners say they have worked diligently in recent years to improve the water quality, according to Dadoly.

Jerry Erstrom, 69, has been a Willowcreek farmer all his life. His parents moved to the area when irrigation systems were constructed in the 1930s.

Since then, people have learned a lot about water efficiency in farming, Erstrom said.

Water quality is an indicator of how sustainable farming practices are within a watershed — the area in which all water flows into a single waterbody.

In the last decade, the Malheur Watershed Council, which Erstrom headed for 15 years, and the Malheur Soil and Water Conservation District partnered with DEQ and private landowners to improve efficient use of water and reduce runoff from crops into waterways.

The watershed council is a nonprofit with a board composed of farmers and ranchers. Board members are appointed by Malheur County commissioners.

By conserving water and reducing the amount of runoff from crops, farmers in the area could reduce the amount of pollutants getting into waterways, officials say.

Over $24 million has been awarded in recent years for such projects, according to the watershed council. The grants have primarily come from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, which in turn gets most of its money from lottery revenues.

“I hate to use the word miracle, but it was certainly good luck for this community,” Erstrom said.

The projects focused on the Willow Creek basin, which was declared a priority by the watershed council.

Twelve thousand acres of furrow-irrigated farmland in the Willow Creek basin have been converted to sprinkler systems. Furrow irrigation floods trenches between crop rows while sprinklers allow farmers to deliver water to crops precisely.

“The conversion of furrow irrigation to sprinkler irrigation can reduce labor costs related to irrigation, reduce the water required to grow a crop, make irrigation more uniform, and reduce irrigation-induced erosion,” according to the Oregon State University Malheur County Experiment Station website.

“There’s absolutely no flippin’ comparison in terms of erosion,” Erstrom said. “We were on the verge of losing all the top soil. We didn’t realize how much we were losing.”

The watershed council estimated that up to 600,000 tons of topsoil would run off into Willow Creek if every farm in the basin was furrow-irrigated.

Ninety years of soil loss is visually apparent. Some fields sit two to three feet below their original irrigation canals.

Without topsoil, crops can’t grow.

But using sprinkler systems has cut the amount of water that runs off fields.

“It keeps the nutrients, pesticides, and chemicals on the fields instead of running off downstream,” Erstrom said.

Nutrient loading from nitrogen and phosphorus-based fertilizers can cause algal blooms in waterways. As algae die, oxygen-consuming bacteria multiply to eat the dead algae, cutting oxygen for fish and other aquatic organisms.

Additionally, the watershed council built sedimentation ponds to collect runoff, preventing it from reaching Willow Creek.

The watershed council’s most extensive project was the conversion of over 100 miles of open-air irrigation laterals, mainlines, and canals to piped delivery systems. Open-air systems evaporate water and allow it percolate into the ground before it reaches farmers’ crops.

Piping the water also reduces the risk of weeds and other aquatic plants clogging irrigation systems.

The projects have also reduced the impact of livestock grazing on water quality.

The watershed council has developed over 15 miles of riparian buffers — green spaces that filter out contaminants like bacteria and separate grazing areas from streams using trees, shrubs, and plants. Partners have planted 4,000 trees.

As result, over 180 billion colonies of E. coli per acre of grazing land has been prevented from entering waterways, according to data collected by the watershed council.

“What made this work was that it was a win-win for everybody,” Erstrom said. He lauds the cooperation he saw between farmers, ranchers, and environmental groups while working on these projects.

“It’s a rare thing to see,” he said.

While the projects have improved environmental conditions, farmers have benefitted. That’s why there has been widespread buy-in.

In addition to less sedimentation, water conservation has allowed farmers to irrigate up to a month longer than in the past.

There have been some unintended consequences, however.

Furrow irrigation previously allowed runoff to flow from one farm to the next before reaching Willow Creek. Farms downstream didn’t always need to buy extra water to irrigate their crops.

Now that runoff is miniscule, all farmers have to put in water orders four days in advance of irrigation time.

The watershed council also only upgraded the water delivery systems. Farmers have had to buy their own irrigation pivots and sprinkler systems.

The cost of a pivot system on 128-160 acres of farmland can be up to $80,000, according to a 2013 report from North Dakota State University.

That’s a cost many farmers in the area can’t afford, Erstrom said.

Despite the improvements in the Willowcreek area, the Malheur River remains one of the most polluted waterways in the state, according to DEQ water monitoring data from 2017.

“It’s going to take another decade or two before we see measurable changes in the water quality,” said Dadoly. “The effects of these improvements take time.”

Ken Diebel, a watershed coordinator with the Malheur Watershed Council, said that the group’s efforts are ongoing and that there’s more work to be done.

The watershed council and the Soil and Water Conservation District continue to apply for grants to improve farming practices, and provide education and outreach programs, Diebel said. The groups want to expand on their efforts in the Willow Creek area and start implementing projects in other areas of the basin.

“The message I’d like to get out is that we’re really doing a lot to improve what quality and we’ve made a lot of progress,” he said.

Max Egener prepared report while a reporter for the Enterprise this summer.