Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

Federal Judge John Acosta's recent ruling has to do with stream temperatures that are too warm, but the judge's words surely chilled the spines of farmers and ranchers in Eastern Oregon.

Acosta, in a 51-page decision, criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to ensure that Oregon regulatory agencies enforce temperature limits designed to protect threatened salmon, steelhead and bull trout.

Water temperatures that are ideal for, say, crappie or bass, can kill those aforementioned threatened species.

But it gets awfully hot in our part of the state, you might be thinking. What are we supposed to do - pump chilled water into our creeks and rivers?

Well, no.

Yet Acosta is not buying the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's claim that some streams exceed temperature standards because, well, it gets hot in the summer and besides, it's always been that way.

The judge chastises the federal and state agency for not giving sufficient consideration to other possible culprits. And herein lies the potential pitfall for farmers and ranchers.

Among those culprits is a scarcity of streamside shrubs and trees to shade the water and thus keep temperatures down.

This is a common situation on reaches of streams that run through agricultural land or livestock grazing areas in our area.

It's hardly a certainty that Acosta's ruling means farmers and ranchers will have to drastically change their operations until streams on their properties are as well-shaded as a country brook in a 19th-century painting.

But it's plausible that the judge's decision prompt state and federal agencies to be much less tolerant of tepid streams than they have been.

And we're not confident that grants or other assistance would cover the entire cost of such protective measures as planting streamside trees and building fences to keep cattle from munching the saplings (and, of course, livestock fences don't deter deer and elk).

Perhaps the biggest impediment to turning Acosta's ruling into action, though, is the paucity of data.

The DEQ's stream pollution database for the Powder and Burnt River basins is rife with the phrase "insufficient data."

The state is going to need to buy a whole lot of thermometers before it starts cracking down on anybody.

In the meantime, though, there are more than a dozen local streams which have been studied and found to exceed, during summer, what scientists concluded is the maximum safe temperature for certain species.

Some of these streams, though, illustrate the complexity of this issue.

Take, for instance, Indian Creek. This tributary of the Powder River heads high in the Elkhorn Mountains near Anthony Lakes.

Indian Creek flows through exclusively public land in its course of several miles (it doesn't empty directly into Powder River, but rather into another tributary, Anthony Creek).

Cattle don't graze along the creek. And there's been little logging, if any, there for the past few decades.

The lower stretch of Indian Creek does, though, flow through the area burned during the Anthony Fire in 1960. Even after half a century, the thickets of lodgepole pine that grew after the fire don't give as much shade as the older, unburned forest in the stream's upper reaches.

Indian Creek harbors bull trout, which are most sensitive to temperature - the threshold is 50 degrees.

Surveys in 1992 and 1993 measured water temperatures of 61 degrees and 63 degrees in Indian Creek.

The maximum temperature is higher for salmon and steelhead rearing habitat (64 degrees) and for redband trout (68).

Several local streams exceeded one of these limits when they were surveyed in the early 1990s, including the Powder River, North Powder River, Wolf Creek, Elk Creek, Dean Creek and California Gulch.

In each of these cases, though, there exist only the raw temperature data.

Proving that grazing, farming or other activities are solely, or largely, responsible for the water temperatures will require more detailed studies.

We're not suggesting that the state or federal agencies ignore the situation. Or rather, continue to ignore it, as critics contend.

Regardless, as Judge Acosta points out, those agencies are required by law to try to protect threatened fish.

Still and all, as the case of Indian Creek suggests, natural events such as forest fires can affect stream temperature just as human activities can.

We hope regulatory agencies, in responding to Acosta's ruling, fairly consider all those factors before officials start imposing mandates that could prove disastrous to the agriculture industry that is a mainstay of the region's economy.

Also, remember that it does get toasty around here come July.

Even in the shade, provided you can find a patch.