Protecting water quality and habitat along streams in grazing areas

Pete's Creek

Pete's Creek in 1997 (left) and 2011 (right) after DNR implemented Best Management Practices to reduce the impact of cattle grazing.

Over the past 19 years, Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) land managers have worked to enhance the health of riparian and upland ecosystems on the state trust lands that we manage. One example is to continue to look for opportunities to mitigate grazing impacts to these ecosystems. Three projects serve to illustrate this effort.

In 1993, it was determined that water quality was being degraded in three watersheds within Carlton and Pete’s Creek permit ranges on state trust lands in the north central Washington. The three watersheds included Pete’s Creek, Cow Creek, and North Fork Texas Creek. DNR managers found that livestock seeking drinking water had damaged riparian areas and increased sediment into the streams. The reduced vegetation cover was so severe that normal spring runoff had eroded the stream banks, causing steep cut banks, had lowered the water table, and dried up formerly green lowlands.

Texas Creek

North Fork Texas Creek in 1999 (left) and in 2011 (right) after implementation of Best Management Practices.

To address these concerns, in 1994, DNR and our grazing permittees applied for a cost share grant (Centennial Clean Water Grant)—awarded by the Washington State Conservation Commission and Okanogan Conservation District. The project focus was to draw the livestock away from the streams to improve water quality by reducing their contribution to the pollution problem, using Best Management Practices (BMPs). These best practices include:

  • Proper grazing use
  • Planned grazing system
  • Spring development, at the collection point for water
  • Water troughs and tanks, placed in the upland between 100 and 2,500 feet from the stream
  • Pipe lines, laid to bring water  to the troughs, and fencing was used in key locations to prevent the animals from reaching the riparian areas and streams

By the fall of 1996 all practices were completed for this grant.

In 1995, a Jobs For the Environment grant was secured to further enhance the riparian areas with native vegetation planting and in-stream projects—native hardwood species in the riparian area and conifers in the uplands. Stabilization of head cuts — a sudden drop of the stream channel elevation, a ‘water fall’— in the Cow Creek drainage helped prevent further channel degradation. The head cut likely would have continued to move up stream causing an incised channel on two sites, lowering the water table and eliminating the natural flood plain. Crews also treated noxious uplands weeds, followed by seeding of native grasses.

Cow Creek lower reservoir: 1999-2011

Riparian restoration and other enhancements between 1999 (left) and 2011 (right) have improved Cow Creek's natural habitat while allowing grazing uses.

To gage the projects’ success, stream cross sections were established to monitor depth and width of channels. Hydro-thermographs were placed above and below project areas to record change in water temperature and photo points were established to monitor change in riparian vegetation. Monitoring has determined that the increase riparian vegetation has improved conditions by lowering water temperatures and increasing the ability of the streams to capture silt before it reaches the streams, resulting in clean water in the systems.     

This area is managed under the South Summit Coordinated Resource Management Plan (CRMP), which meets on an annual basis to insure the best practices still are being followed. Grazing of key forage is recorded annually, along with planned grazing rotation of the pastures. Photo monitoring continues to document changes in riparian vegetation over time.

By Brian Derting, South Okanogan District Land Manager