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Fruit Growers Develop Innovative Screen To Keep Fish Out Of Irrigation Water

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service is in the final stages of approving an experimental fish screen for use as standard technology.

The screen was created in Hood River. It could receive NOAA approval by the end of the year, and if that happens, there are international customers lining up.

Oregon Field Guide’s Jule Gilfillan reports on what the new screen promises for fish and farmers.

Hood River’s fruit growers, like Fritz von Lubken rely on the abundant water from Mt. Hood’s snowpack to irrigate their orchards.  It’s a good arrangement until the fish that live in that water end up in his irrigation pipes, clog up his sprinklers and cause tension with local fish and wildlife agencies.

For years, to avoid these issues, farmers like Fritz have installed fish screens – devices that block fish from swimming into water diversions, much the way window screens keep insects out of your house. 

But Fritz says these screens clogged easily with the silt and debris coming off the mountain, and choked off his water supply.

Fritz von Lubken: “On one of our ranches, we had a situation where my son would have to go up and check the screen everyday. And fish were still getting through and fish were still in the canal.”

Oregon Field Guide

Watch an excerpt from Jule Gilfillan’s upcoming Oregon Field Guide report on the Farmers Screen.

Although they say the fish screens were an imperfect solution, farmers installed them in order to comply with fish and wildlife policies.

Then in 1996, a massive flood raced down Mt. Hood and wiped out all but one of the screens they’d installed.  The farmers then faced the task of reinstalling fish screens that they felt didn’t work well in the first place.

With little left to lose, the Farmers Irrigation District, which administers local water rights, then began designing a new screen with a consortium that included wildlife conservation agencies.

Fritz von Lubken: “I think what we were trying to do was find a better way of solving the problem.”

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Rod French is one of the fish biologists involved in the project. 

Rod French: “The irrigation district realized they needed to upgrade their screens.  They wanted a more efficient system and the agencies also wanted a more efficient system for fish passage.”

These overlapping interests led to an innovation called the Farmers Screen.

Traditional fish screens are usually vertical.  The Farmers Screen is horizontal.  It looks like a long, tapered chute. 

It works by diverting a portion of the water from a river – along with any fish or debris it is carrying – off the main channel.  After a short distance, the water returns to the main channel.  So, it works like a by-pass lane on a freeway.

While the water flows through the chute and across the Farmers Screen, some of it drips through the screen’s porous floor.  The screened water then flows to the orchards.

Rod French says the flow-through screen design is easier on fish.

Rod French: “The benefit of a Farmers Screen is that it leaves water in the channel and allows fish to swim at their own will past the screen.”

And it turns out that what’s good for the fish is also good for the farmers.

Fritz von Lubken: “We’re getting a consistent amount of water, we’re getting the water when we need it, where we need it. The fish are no longer in the system. So, it’s a win for the fisherman, it’s a win for the farmer and it’s a win for the fish and there’s water in the system where it belongs.”

So far, the Farmers Conservation Alliance or FCA has installed 19 Farmers Screens in Oregon and three other western states. But to open up wider markets, the Farmers Screen needs official approval from NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. 

After years of testing to make sure it is safe for fish, the technology is now in the final stages of getting that approval.

The FCA’s business development director, Les Perkins, points out that the screen won’t work in all situations.

Les Perkins: “You need lots of different tools in order to address screening.  And the Farmers Screen is a great tool for places where you have a lot of sediment or you have a lot of organic debris like leaves and sticks and you have gradient.”

Perkins estimates that the flat-plate technology would work in about 10 to 15 percent of Oregon’s diversions. 

Still, the Farmers Screen is attracting interest in countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand that also have the steep, silt-prone mountain conditions found in Hood River.

But even if the screen isn’t widely adopted, Perkins says the fact that it brought farmers and wildlife conservation agencies together is as important as the technology itself.

Les Perkins: “That doesn’t happen often when it comes to resource issues.  Most of the time, there’s conflict.  This is one of those times when people actually found a way to find a solution that works for everybody.”

Folks in Hood River will tell you that makes it a success already.



Scott Silver helped produce this story.

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