As readers of this blog know, I regularly have opinion pieces published in the Bend Bulletin. When I submit columns, I do so with extensive documentation of my claims, a sometimes tedious process but one I respect. Fact-based journalism is one of the pillars of our democracy. Unfortunately, these same standards are not applied throughout the Bulletin as evidenced by Gary Lewis’ most recent column, “Deschutes River steelhead by the numbers”.
In this column Mr. Lewis correlates low steelhead numbers in the Deschutes with the operation of the Selective Water Withdrawal tower in Lake Billy Chinook and asks the rhetorical question, “Why are there smallmouth bass in the lower Deschutes now when the river used to be too cold? Why are warmwater walleyes caught in the Deschutes up to nine miles from the mouth?” He answers the question with a reference to the Deschutes River Alliance, a group formed to oppose the operation of the SWW.
I have lived in Central Oregon for 18 years and have been tracking the wide range of efforts to reintroduce anadromous fish into the Upper Deschutes Basin for most of that time. I have attended numerous scientific conferences on the topic, most recently last month, read the scientific reports, helped raise funds for the fish ladder at Opal Springs Dam when I was president of the Deschutes Basin Chapter of the Association of NW Steelheaders, and have written about this topic in this blog and elsewhere for many years.
For these efforts, among others, I am the recipient of the 2018 Award of Merit from the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society. I am not an employee of Portland General Electric or the Confederated Tribe of Warm Springs, the operators of the SWW, nor am I a fishing guide with an axe to grind. I am simply an angler who wants to catch more steelhead and hoped that reintroduction efforts would lead to that.
I have never seen any scientific evidence that the SWW is leading to the decline of steelhead or trout in the lower Deschutes River. Nothing at all. If you have such evidence, please send it to me. I would sincerely appreciate it. (I have already read all the reports from the Deschutes River Alliance and had conversations about many of them with the DRA’s founder before his unfortunate early passing.) All I have seen are unfounded claims, spurious “evidence”, personal anecdotes*, and endless self-serving complaints.
Yes, the temperature profile of the river has changed, as was the plan all along. It is warmer in the spring and cooler in the fall. This is a more natural temperature profile and has been a benefit to trout as clearly shown in the annual fish surveys conducted by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife. These surveys have shown for years that if anything, redband trout have benefited from the operation of the SWW across all age classes.
Yes, the aquatic insects have been impacted. Some have become more abundant, some less, and the timing of their hatches has changed. This may impact the time of year it is best to fish with dry flies and therefore a fishing guide’s business, but it has not had a negative impact on trout. Yes, there are times and places where there is more algae. Again, it has not impacted trout. Yes, the pH levels in the river are above statewide targets. This was also the case before the SWW since the Deschutes has naturally high pH levels from flowing through relatively recent lava flows. Again, this has not impacted the fish that have lived in this environment for thousands of years.
The claim that the SWW is negatively impacting steelhead is also without scientific basis. Steelhead in the entire Columbia Basin, and throughout Oregon are in decline. This is due to a wide range of factors. Global warming has created poor ocean conditions including acidification, hypoxia, and a breakdown in the cold water food web. Pollution from a variety of sources including agricultural runoff, industry, plastics, and even the dust from car tires wearing down, impacts fish. Excessive harvest in the ocean and in rivers from commercial, tribal, and recreational anglers is part of the problem. The loss of cold water spawning habitat from dams along with water diversions for municipal, agricultural, and industrial use, and real estate developments cannot be overstated. Competition with genetically inferior and less diverse hatchery fish continues to be a critical factor. The Pelton Round Butte hydroelectric facility is certainly an impediment to fish passage, but the SWW is an attempt to ameliorate that.
A heating planet is causing water temperatures to rise all over the state. Populations of warm water species are exploding on the Columbia River, and they do seasonally migrate a short way up the Deschutes in the summer. The SWW became operational during this time but is not the cause of increasing Columbia River temperatures. Coincidental is not causal. If we want to reduce the seasonal intrusion of bass and walleye into the lowermost stretches of the Deschutes, we need to work on reducing the temperature of the Columbia, which would benefit steelhead, salmon, and other anadromous species as well.
Our planet is at a tipping point. Summers are hotter, “extreme” weather is becoming common, species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate, drought and wildfires are common part of our lives, and the list goes on. It should be no surprise that cold water anadromous fish are declining. Unfounded theories based on personal observations and desires are detrimental to looking for real solutions. There is no easy switch, like turning off the SWW, that can be thrown to take us back to the “days of old”.
I enjoy Mr. Lewis’ articles describing his fishing and hunting adventures but he should leave environmental reporting to people who have taken the time to become informed on topic.
*This really gets me. Here’s something I recently heard from a guide, “I’ve been fishing this river for 40 years and the SWW has ruined it.” I have heard this sort of thing for years. Well, for 62 years I have seen the sun come up every morning and go down every night and can tell you that the sun revolves around the earth. My personal observation is that the earth is flat, I have personally never seen a curve to it, even from the air. You get the point, there is a reason why we rely on the scientific method and not personal observation or tribal knowledge.
If we want to rely on personal observation, my experience is that the trout fishing has improved since the SWW become operational. I am catching more fish across all age classes and an 18+” fish is no longer uncommon. I have had to change the timing of my trips and some of the tactics I use, but the trout fishing has been very good.