2020 Deschutes Fisheries Workshop Recap

I have looked forward to attending the annual Deschutes Fisheries Workshop for many years.  It has been the place to hear the latest, best available science on what is happening in the Deschutes River, some of its tributaries, and anadromous fish reintroduction efforts. I found the online event yesterday to be disappointing, however.  Part of that is due to the lack interaction with others in the hallway, during a meal, or at the bar.  The organizers are not to blame for that, they have no control over the pandemic, but they could have provided a lot more content.  Here’s my summary and criticism of the 26th annual meeting

The headline remains the same: reintroduction of anadromous fish into the Upper Deschutes Basin continues to fall far short of goals and expectations. A total of 36 adult steelhead returned to the Pelton fish trap in the 2018/2019 season (roughly July through March). This season (2019/2020) was not discussed but according to data on the PGE website, 57 adults returned. An improvement, but still depressingly low. (As a sport angler, I focus on steelhead, but chinook and sockeye salmon returns are similarly poor.)

The biologists involved in this effort will state that this is a long term effort, that fish passage into the Upper Deschutes Basin was cut off for decades, and it may take decades to reestablish viable populations. I am supportive of this line of thought, given two caveats. Progress and operational improvements need to be continuously made and there must be no/limited detrimental impact on lower Deschutes fish. Unfortunately, there was little evidence of either of these at yesterday’s meeting.

Ultimately, the success of this effort will be determined by returning adult fish.  Short of that, progress could be shown by increased smolt capture rates.  Yesterday’s presentations illustrated this remains low.  Additionally, there was no discussion of operational changes to be made in this area.  Past conferences broached the idea of installing a guidance curtain that would funnel smolts into the capture area of the Selective Water Withdrawal tower (SWW), a technique has been successfully used elsewhere.

One cornerstone of my support for the reintroduction effort has been a discussion by ODFW of their annual lower Deschutes trout survey.  This has consistently shown that regardless of any claims made about water quality, the redband trout population remains robust.  If anything, it is in better shape than prior to reintroduction efforts with bigger, healthier fish.  This is precisely what was anticipated during the planning of the reintroduction effort as the river would be returned to a more natural temperature profile.  My thinking has always been, what’s the problem with reintroduction not meeting expectations as long as it does not hurt the trout population?  Personally, I need the reassurance that redbands in the lower river continue to thrive but was not given it yesterday.  (I’ll ask ODFW for that data and report on it.)

The water quality story remains unchanged.  Temperature and dissolved oxygen remain on target while pH remains slightly elevated.  It is not possible to get all three simultaneously to target.  pH is the least critical as the Deschutes has naturally high pH levels and there have been no documented adverse impacts from it.  (I have written extensively about this, look at past posts.)

A final criticism of the meeting was the lack of discussion on the effectiveness of the recent “pulse flow” in the Crooked River.  I got a little snarky about this in the Q&A session at the end of the meeting, but I am flabbergasted.  As everyone knows, we are in a drought.  Prineville Reservoir did not fill over the winter/spring and the “fish water” allocation is well short of target.  This means that after the end of irrigation season, the water needs of resident fish will not be fully met.  Nevertheless, in the spring the decision was made to send a “pulse flow” of fish water down the river to help flush anadromous smolts out of the Crooked River. 

I understand the thinking: simulating high spring flows should trigger an outmigration response by smolts.  What I do not understand is not having the processes in place to measure the effectiveness of this test.  When I asked the question, the answer was that no one knows if it was beneficial.  In my mind this is unacceptable.  Why use scarce and valuable fish water in a test that cannot be evaluated?

To end on a positive note, volitional fish passage at Opal Springs dam is doing as well as anyone could have hoped for.  As of 7/17/20, there have been 18,090 upstream migrants and 5,012 downstream fish, from numerous species, since the ladder opened late last year.  Very few of these have been anadromous fish, but resident fish connectivity is a wonderful thing as well.

In all honesty, I look forward to next year’s meeting.