For over 20 years a wide range of companies, organizations, agencies, and individuals have been working on the reintroduction of steelhead and salmon into the upper Deschutes Basin above Lake Billy Chinook. This includes the middle Deschutes, the Crooked River, the Metolius Rivers, and their tributaries.
To the surprise of fish biologists who had anticipated that Whychus Creek and the Metolius Rivers would be the primary destinations, the great majority of the returning steelhead and Chinook salmon have attempted to head up the Crooked River to spawn. The overwhelming preference for the Crooked has been the case every year there have been anadromous fish returns. Unfortunately, until last week a dam at the bottom of the Crooked River had largely blocked upstream passage for these returning anadromous fish.
As part of the relicensing of the Pelton-Round Butte hydroelectric facility in 2005, Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, co-owners of the facility, were required to provide fish passage from the Lower Deschutes into Lake Billy Chinook. The requirement for fish passage did not extend, however, to other dams on the rivers above Lake Billy Chinook.
Seeing the historic opportunity for anadromous fish reintroduction, numerous agencies and organizations began to work together on habitat restoration and removing minor dams on some of the waters that comprise the upper Deschutes Basin. The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife began planting anadromous fry and smolts in these waters in 2007.
Fish were planted in the Metolius, the middle Deschutes and Whychus Creek, a tributary of the middle Deschutes just above the lake, in anticipation they would return to the release location. Fish were also planted in the Crooked River under the assumption that fish passage at barriers on the Crooked would be addressed in a reasonable period of time.
Accordingly, Deschutes Valley Water District, the owners of the Opal Springs Hydro Facility was approached. DVWD is under no legal obligation to provide passage as their license to operate the project does not come up for renewal until 2032. Nevertheless, they embraced the opportunity to facilitate reintroduction under a cost sharing agreement.
To that end, the Oregon Water Enhancement Board (OWEB) made a commitment to fund $1M of the cost. This initial pledge was the cornerstone for fundraising activity that eventually allowed DVWD to construct the dam. Many groups worked to obtain this commitment from OWEB, but the Association of NW Steelheaders took an early leadership role and deserves significant credit for getting the fundraising effort off to a good start.
The fish ladder became operational last Friday and the first steelhead entered the ladder at 4 am this morning. I was able to tour the ladder this afternoon and took the photo below of the video of the steelhead. Trout and whitefish have also passed up the ladder.
Anadromous runs throughout the Pacific NW are in dire shape. Dams, habitat loss, over fishing, breeding with hatchery fish, pollution, and global heating have put many of these iconic species on the path to extinction. Fish passage at Opal Springs is not the solution to all of these problems, but without it salmon and steelhead reintroduction in the upper Deschutes Basin had little chance of success.