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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sun Solutions

Air Date: Week of

Jacob Lewin reports from Oregon that ranchers are using solar-powered pumps to keep portable troughs filled with water so cattle will stay out of streams where they foul the salmon’s habitat.


CURWOOD: A popular bumper sticker in Oregon reads, "Cows Kill Salmon." The spoiling of fish habitat by cattle tends to pit ranchers against environmentalists. But as Jacob Lewin reports, the two groups are finding some common ground, thanks to new technology.

(Splashing water)

LEWIN: Silver Creek, in the Ochoco National Forest in rural Harney County, Oregon, is free-flowing, beautiful, and clean. That's unusual for ranching country, where thousands of cattle drink from waterways and trample their banks. And that creates a problem for fish. A big problem, says Geoff Pampush of Oregon Trout.

PAMPUSH: Indirectly, livestock grazing probably has had a bigger impact on fish in the west than any other single land use activity. And that comes because silt accumulates. The streamside vegetation is eaten down over time. So the shade is eventually removed. And overall, it is as large a problem as any.

LEWIN: Pampush acknowledges that development and logging also play big roles. But cattle trample stream banks and kill streamside plants. That leads to erosion and even major landslides. Severely degraded streams become broad, shallow, and too warm for fish to survive. Rancher Mark Doverspike runs a thousand head of cattle in Harney County, not far from Silver Creek. He's trying something new amongst ranchers in the west. He is pumping water out of streams and away from stream and river banks, and to drinking troughs. And he's doing it with solar power, mostly out of necessity.

DOVERSPIKE: As the crow flies to the nearest power line from where we're standing right now, it's almost ten miles.

LEWIN: Mr. Doverspike and Dave Chamberlin, a state employee helping with the project, laid a half mile of pipe, installed a submersible pump --

(The pump hums)

LEWIN: -- built and filled metal troughs.

(Water runs against metal)

LEWIN: Mr. Chamberlin , who spends part of his time evangelizing about these systems in several western states, felt if they built it, they would come. And they did.

(Cows moo)

CHAMBERLIN: I'd hesitate to explain how a cow thinks, but they do appear to prefer to drink out of a tank. It's up more at eye level. Creeks tend to be kind of in a hole, and so they have to kind of stand on their heads to drink out of the creek.

LEWIN: In addition to protecting streams, the pumping systems help protect grasslands. Cows eat near where they water. Over-grazing can eliminate natural plant diversity, but the pumping systems are portable, and moving the troughs around opens up new grazing areas, which eases the problem. Mr. Chamberlin, a former rancher himself, says he's not surprised that Mark Doverspike and other ranchers have embraced the new technology.

CHAMBERLIN: The ranch families live on the land, and they take a real personal responsibility for how that land operates. If you run your cows out here and this year destroy all of your grass base, you don't have any grass base for next year.

LEWIN: Meanwhile, the Doverspikes, a fourth-generation ranching family, are enjoying a bonus from the solar pumping project: wildlife are watering at their troughs.

DOVERSPIKE: In the fall, we'll get groups of antelope, 200 to 300 per bunch, and the elk will probably, the biggest bunch we will see, about 100 to 150 head.

LEWIN: And Doverspike and Chamberlin, along with the state energy office, have also made a believer out of conservationists like Jeff Pampush.

PAMPUSH: Absolutely. Getting the livestock to clean water off the stream in the late summer is very good for the stream, and I think most livestock producers say it's better for the cows.

(Running stream)

LEWIN: The state of Oregon is offering subsidies to those who come on board. Mr. Chamberlin says as more ranchers sign on, we'll be seeing cleaner streams around the west ranching country, and solar panels right alongside them. For Living on Earth, I'm Jacob Lewin in Riley, Oregon.



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