Crooked River Trout Survey

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Not long ago I was one of the volunteers who helped ODFW with their annual trout survey on the Crooked River.  As reported in The Bulletin, it appears that trout numbers have rebounded from their recent record lows and are now up to 3,500 a mile.  This is welcome news, but it is only part of the story.

After years of negotiations between the City of Prineville, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, irrigation districts, and various environmental groups led by WaterWatch, federal legislation was enacted in December 2014 that was intended to change the way in which water was released from Prineville Reservoir.  Previously, the reservoir was managed solely to provide irrigation releases in the summer and flood control in the winter and spring.  There was no provision to release water for fish and wildlife.

The new legislation guaranteed that the irrigation districts would get their water allocation which equates to about half the capacity of the reservoir.  The other half was to be released for the “maximum biological benefit” of fish.  Unfortunately, the Bureau of Reclamation (BoR), who controls the releases, did not implement the bill in the spirit in which it was written and unnecessarily released far too much water the summer following passage of the legislation.   This left Prineville Reservoir at the 4th lowest on record at the end of the summer.  The BoR did this in spite of opposition from some who had been involved in the crafting of the legislation.

With little water remaining in the reservoir, early the following winter flows into the Crooked got down to 35 cfs just as temperatures plummeted, freezing not only parts of the river but also the exposed river bottom, killing plants and the aquatic insects that the fish feed on.  (Note that ODFW believes that 80 cfs is the minimum required for viable habitat in the Crooked River.)

This was bad, but it got worse.  There was an early and large snow pack in the Ochocos that winter.  Rather than releasing some of the remaining water early in anticipation of the melt, the BoR continued to store water until the reservoir was nearly full.  As a result, once the spring melt occurred massive amounts of water were dumped causing nitrogen gas bubble disease in the surviving fish.  This combination of low flows, freezing, and then abrupt, excessive flows causing gas bubble disease reduced trout populations by 84%.

BoR has stated that they will now manage the river per the intent of the legislation but the story is not over.  The legislation was also intended to release the “fish water” so that it would flow all the way to Lake Billy Chinook.  This was to benefit habitat downstream from the Wild & Scenic section familiar to most anglers as well as support the efforts to reintroduce salmon and steelhead into the upper Deschutes Basin.  Historically, the Crooked River and its tributaries provided the primary spawning grounds for Deschutes steelhead.

Unfortunately, the fish water released into the Crooked is not protected by state water rights.  This allows water rights owners downstream from the Wild & Scenic section to withdraw it.  Attempts to protect this water by obtaining state water rights for the fish water were initially opposed by BoR and are now being blocked by lawyers working for the irrigators.  The battle between irrigators and fish and wildlife continues.

BTW, the photo shows how the sampling is done.  A raft floats down the river with a gas-powered generator in the rear.  The generator sends an electric current into the water in front of the raft via the two booms from which conducting wires descend.  The electric current temporarily stuns fish and they float to the surface where netters stand ready to scoop them up and transfer them to a holding tank on the raft.  After a short stretch the raft comes to the river bank where the fish are marked, measured, and placed in 5 gallon buckets which the volunteers carry back upstream to release the fish.

If you want to see where fish really hold in the Crooked you should volunteer to help next year.  It may not be where you think.