A River (or Lifestyle?) Worth Fighting For

The Deschutes River Alliance has recently released a new video titled “A River Worth Fighting For” touching on their suit against Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs alleging violations of the Clean Water Act.  They spend more time illustrating economic hardship in Maupin which they attribute to those violations.  While I am completely in favor of the Clean Water Act being enforced, and sympathetic to businesses who rely on tourism, I believe this video is misleading in many respects.

The DRA begins by positing that the Crooked River is not healthy habitat for fish while the Metolius is.  Clearly, water quality on the Crooked could be greatly improved.  As anglers in Central Oregon know, however, the Wild & Scenic section of the Crooked is one of the most productive fisheries in the area, perhaps the state.  In good water years ODFW sampling has shown as many as 8,000 redband trout per mile and there are whitefish in addition to this.  Experienced anglers can catch 20+ fish an hour on a good day.  The Crooked is far more productive than the Metolius whose water is cleaner and colder but does not support as abundant aquatic plants, insects, or robust fisheries.

I prefer the Metolius and have caught plenty of fish there but it’s not the place to go to catch lots of fish.  Water quality on the Crooked below the confluence of Ochoco and McKay Creeks drops significantly from irrigation withdrawals but dramatic groundwater recharge around Crooked River Ranch returns the Crooked to a good angling experience down to Lake Billy Chinook.  Spring recharge makes this lower most section of the river similar to the Metolius in terms of water clarity and fish abundance.

It is also not true that prior to the operation of the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower (SWW) only Metolius water went downstream into the lower Deschutes.  Anyone who has seen the Metolius knows that it is far too small a river to be the sole source of water for the lower Deschutes.  Water from all three tributaries (Crooked, Metolius, and middle Deschutes) has always gone down the lower river.  It is true that prior to the operation of the SWW only water from the bottom of the dam was released, resulting in an unnaturally cold lower Deschutes during the summer, but that water has always been a mix of all three tributaries.

Much of the video is focused on reduced tourism in Maupin.  This is clearly a serious issue for business owners but the video plays loose with the facts here as well.

Complaints are made about reduced tourism during steelhead season but it is simply false to claim that the operation of the SWW is the cause of recent dismal steelhead returns to the Deschutes.  As has been broadly discussed in the scientific community, the media, and this blog, steelhead returns are down throughout the Pacific Northwest, particularly in the Columbia Basin, of which the Deschutes is a tributary.  Factors include loss of spawning habitat, dams, a sometimes lethally warm Columbia River, over predation by pinnipeds (mostly sea lions), over fishing, and pollution.  The largest factor, however, is global warming which has made large sections of the Pacific inhospitable for steelhead.  If anything, the SWW is a positive factor in improving steelhead returns by opening up historical spawning areas.  Last spring saw record numbers of out migrating steelhead smolts passed through the SWW down the Deschutes, hopefully we will see them come back soon.

It is also false to claim that resident trout populations have decreased since the operation of the SWW.  Annual ODFW fish sampling on the lower Deschutes has consistently shown the redband population to be at least as healthy and numerous now as in the past.  If anything, the fish are larger, and per ODFW creel surveys the catch rates are good, in line with those reported on blue-ribbon rivers in Montana.  My personal angling experience supports this.  While an 18” redband used to be rare, I am now catching them over 20” with some regularity.  It is true that I have had to adjust the timing and techniques I use to catch them, but the fish are there.

The video does illustrate, however, that the real issue with the lower Deschutes is an economic one, not one of river or fisheries health.  Without question, the operation of the SWW has changed the nature of the angling experience by diminishing the opportunity for summertime dry fly fishing.  The river is no longer providing the type of fishing, at the time of year, that many anglers cherish.  This has an economic impact on guides, fly shops, and businesses in Maupin and elsewhere.

The question is, are we anglers primarily concerned with the health of the fishery which, per the best available science, has shown no ill effects from the operation of the SWW or are we interested in managing the river for our enjoyment of dry fly fishing in the summer?  Are we willing to change tactics, techniques, and timing in order to allow for the potential of anadromous fish reintroduction?  (For more on the current best available science, I encourage you to attend the next Fisheries Workshop.)

PS: Regarding the Clean Water Act, the Oregon Department of Environment Quality has told me that for the most part, water being released downstream from the SWW does meet state water quality standards.  While there were violations of temperature and DO levels early in the operation of the SWW, those have been addressed for some time.  pH remains problematic at times in the summer with occasional violations.  ODEQ points out, however, that the Deschutes has a naturally high pH level and has been in periodic violation of state standards since long before the installation of the SWW.  Of course, the DRA has brought suit against PGE/CTWS on this issue which will eventually be settled by the courts.