Rogue River Project ESA Consultation
Irrigation districts credit GeoEngineers for steady progress toward a positive outcome.
The Rogue River Project irrigation system contains over 1,000 miles of canals.
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The Rogue River Project irrigation system contains over 1,000 miles of canals.
Shown: East Canal.
Expertise
  • River Science & Engineering

Market
  • Water & Natural Resources

Location
  • Near Medford, Oregon

Overview

The Talent, Medford and Rogue River Valley Irrigation Districts operate and maintain the Rogue River Project, a complex water system owned by the Bureau of Reclamation that irrigates about 35,000 acres of the Rogue River Basin in southern Oregon State. Much of the project’s infrastructure of reservoirs, canals and dams was built with federal funds long before the 1972 passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

A recent mandate required federal facilities such as the Rogue River Project to be brought into compliance with the ESA. The process to achieve this compliance is commonly called a consultation, which involves multiple federal agencies and affected tribes. Consultations require a detailed inventory of the environmental conditions and factors associated with each project to be documented in a report called a Biological Assessment. Each consultation concludes with a Biological Opinion (BiOp) that either finds “jeopardy” or “no jeopardy” to threatened and endangered species and habitats.

Due to the myriad issues and species involved, two consultations for the Rogue River Project were completed with GeoEngineers’ help, each with a different federal agency. The first consultation was completed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and focused on
non-commercial fish and wildlife. The second, completed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, focused on commercial species–primarily the Southern Oregon and Northern Coastal California (SONCC) coho salmon.

Consultation with USFWS was successfully completed in 2005, resulting in a USFWS no jeopardy BiOp for non-commercial species. 

The NOAA negotiations proved more challenging, with conflicts between irrigation, water rights and salmon needs that were complex and difficult to resolve. Over the course of the multi-year consultation, NOAA proposed three draft opinions that concluded a jeopardy condition for SONCC coho. GeoEngineers worked diligently from 2005 forward on behalf of the irrigation districts, providing creative, highly technical and collaborative consultation that resulted in a 2012 BiOp from NOAA Fisheries concluding that the project will not jeopardize or disrupt critical habitat SONCC coho salmon.

Approach

Our efforts to reverse the previous NOAA opinions about the project’s impact to SONCC coho focused on improving increased fish habitat, reducing thermal load, incorporating best practices to manage water supply and delivery within the available water budget and developing a robust monitoring program.

GeoEngineers worked cooperatively with BOR and NOAA to complete an aquatic habitat model, collect field data on thermal impacts and refuges and model project water storage. Important elements of the consultation included defining and implementing water-conservation and water-management alternatives to support aquatic habitat needs for coho salmon that also accommodated the Districts’ water flow requirements.

In combination with all of the efforts described above, GeoEngineers faced an even larger challenge when trying to accommodate the in-stream habitat needs of SONCC coho while meeting the water demands for irrigation. By working closely with NOAA and BOR, the technical team itemized the basic parameters of the previous Opinions and addressed each one individually. NOAA strongly wanted sufficient water released to meet a modeled in-stream flow, then asked for large woody debris (LWD) to be added to the affected streams.

Innovation


GeoEngineers developed a new modeling approach that combined the physical habitat simulation model (PHABSIM) with the hydraulic model HEC-RAS. Our approach brought the two models into unison with respect to their channel morphology response prediction and species habitat preferences to calculate a “habitat uplift” provided by adding LWD.

The innovative modeling effort yielded an accurate mathematical estimate of the habitat change that would occur by adding LWD and defined a reasonable balance between the overall fish habitat demand and irrigation demand. This work effectively predicted the habitat change that would occur by adding LWD to a stream—the first time such an approach had been incorporated into an ESA consultation.

Results

  • GeoEngineers completed scientific studies, literature searches and field assessments, and prepared numerous technical documents for the Rogue River Project. The services that GeoEngineers provided through the districts and their legal counsel, Marten Law, were crucial to the successful, favorable completion of the two ESA consultations between BOR and USFWS and BOR and NOAA Fisheries.
  • The project team’s technical work was incorporated into the environmental baseline and the administrative record, providing scientific backup and foundation for the decisions the government made.
  • Our inventive hydraulic modeling gave NOAA Fisheries reasonable assurance that habitat goals with large wood structures and improved in-stream flow could be achieved without unduly disrupting the project operation that supplied irrigation water to part of the nation’s food supply.
  • GeoEngineers’ plan saved water for agricultural production while improving fish habitat, achieving a balance in the demand between human needs and fisheries needs for a limited water supply.
  • Implementation of the habitat restoration and water monitoring programs designed by GeoEngineers is now underway.