28th Annual Deschutes Fisheries Workshop

A spring chinook passing through Opal Springs Dam on 7/26/22 and heading up the Crooked River during a time of extremely low water.

For over a decade I have been attending the annual Fisheries Workshop hosted by Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the owners of the Pelton Round Butte Hydroelectric Project.  This workshop discusses the efforts to reintroduce anadromous fish above Lake Billy Chinook with presentations by a wide range of scientists, agencies, and NGOs.  The last one was on July 14th. I have been waiting to write about it until the materials were online and I had the chance to get through them.

As I have written for years, reintroduction results continue to fall far short of the goals of the project.  Efforts to make improvements continue, however, and I remain hopeful that they will ultimately prove fruitful.  The good news is that trout continue to thrive on the lower Deschutes River.

The workshop covered a wide range of topics including the Selective Water Tower and other facility operational enhancements and updates, adult returns, juvenile fish migration studies, smolt acclimation, fish health, water quality, and habitat improvement projects.  The bottom line is that adult returns continue to be very low, but efforts continue to make improvements in a wide range of areas.

54 upper basin origin returning adult steelhead were captured at the Pelton trap below the re-regulating dam from September 2020 to April 2021.  (Steelhead captured at the trap that did not come from the upper basin were released back into the Deschutes and are not part of the count.) 52 of the 54 fish were fit enough to be passed into LBC.  16 of those were from hatchery fry releases or natural spawning in one of the tributaries of LBC, 36 were from hatchery smolt releases.

72 spring chinook were captured at the trap from May 2021 to July 2021.  69 were fit enough to be moved into LBC.  50 of these were from fry releases and the other 19 were from smolt releases.  Only 36 adult sockeye were captured at the Pelton Fish trap in 2021. 

Some have used these poor results to call for the cessation of operations at the SWW.  This is not legally possible under the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission license for operating the hydroelectric project and ignores the bigger picture.  Efforts at reintroduction have occurred during a time of record setting high temperatures, historic drought, and widespread anadromous fish population declines over the entire Columbia River Basin.  It should not surprise anyone that reintroduction results have been below original expectations.

One comment I continue to hear is that more cold water should be released into the lower Deschutes during the summer to entice more steelhead into the river.  This cold water release does occur around the middle of August, but some anglers would like to have it done sooner.   The fact is that there is simply not enough cold water in LBC to cool the river in July and early August and maintain the cool temperatures through the fall.  Releasing the cold bottom water will not compensate for the very hot temperatures in the summer and leave nothing for the fall.  The coldest water must be stored in the spring and early summer for release later in the summer and fall to lower the river temperature when the majority of steelhead return.

If you want to dig deeper you can watch the 4.5 hours of talks, or obtain the presentations, or read the official reports: