Crooked River flow update

Yesterday I spoke with Bridget Moran of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the agency that worked with local irrigation districts and the City of Prineville on the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan. Due to the cooler and wetter than anticipated spring, Ochoco Irrigation District was able to move their irrigation shut off date from August 15 to September 15. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the plan is now to keep flows at 10 cfs from shut off until November 1, not October 15.

This means that flows in the Wild & Scenic section below Bowman Dam will be lethally low for 6 weeks, more than enough time to do significant damage to wild, native redband trout, whitefish, beavers, osprey, and other species that depend on the river.

The decision to wait until November 1 to start the HCP-mandated winter flows of 50 cfs out of Prineville reservoir was made to save 3,000 acre feet of water for pulse flows in the spring. These are high water releases that will encourage hatchery steelhead and chinook smolts planted in the river to start their migration to Lake Billy Chinook, and hopefully down the Lower Deschutes.

This is the plan that has been agreed to by all parties but has not been codified in writing. That should happen soon.

USFWS is in a tough position. They have a narrow mandate to protect species listed under the endangered species act. The only listed species in the Wild & Scenic section is steelhead and few of them have returned to spawn in that section. Of course, the Crooked River below the City of Prineville is running at 1 cfs, creating a dead zone through which no fish can pass.

Historically low water levels in Prineville Reservoir and continued irrigation releases are about to ruin an extremely popular trout fishery. The period of extreme low flows is to be extended for 2 weeks in exchange for pulse flows in the spring that should encourage planted hatchery smolts to out migrate. Flows of 50 cfs starting November 1 may provide enough water for steelhead to travel up the Crooked to reach their traditional spawning grounds.

This is a big gamble and fish and wildlife are going to pay for it with their lives whether the plan works or not. The only other option would be for OID to give up some of their water, a decision they are not willing to make and for which their is no legal requirement.

Unfortunately, this is another example that 100+ year old water laws in Oregon need to be re-written.