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.
As I wrote 2 weeks ago, steelhead returns to the Deschutes are better than last year but still very low. This post from The Conservation Angler adds more to that discussion and notes that while July returns to the Columbia River were good enough to get ODFW to lift the closure on the Deschutes, since the end of July the returns have plummeted. As of August 10, the steelhead returns are 34% below the last 10-year average. Wild steelhead returns are 45% below. As I have asked many times in this blog, is the thrill of catching one of these fish worth the impact, even with best catch and release practices, when they are barely holding on?
UPDATE: Today ODFW released updated fish counts at Sherars Falls below Maupin on the Deschutes. So far this year a total of 4 steelhead (2 wild and 2 hatchery) have been counted. Last year at this time 12 fish (9 wild and 3 hatchery) had been counted. Again, not all steelhead go up the ladder at the falls, so these numbers are best used as a year to year comparison. Thus far, that comparison is not good.
As expected, yesterday ODFW announced that unmarked summer steelhead counts over Bonneville Dam have surpassed the minimum threshold to open the Lower Deschutes to steelhead fishing on August 15. That is good news, but while the run on the Columbia is “improved”, it is still extremely low and the outlook for Columbia Basin summer steelhead remains dire. So far, counts on the Deschutes at Sherars Falls are worse than last year which saw record low returns. As of July 27 a single steelhead has been counted at that trap, it was a wild fish*. Over the same period last year there were 7 fish, 6 wild and 1 hatchery. It’s also important to know that ODFW believes that every wild fish in the Deschutes is caught at least once. Even using the best catch and release practices there is an estimated 10% mortality rate and reduced fecundity among caught fish. So, be careful out there.
*Not all steelhead go into the fish trap at Sherars Falls. This number is best used as a comparison to other years, not to estimate the total number returning adults. Also note that if 60 or fewer wild steelhead are counted at the trap by October 31 the river will be closed again.
It’s the time of year when spring chinook come into the Deschutes River to spawn. As of yesterday morning, 28 of them have moved through Opal Springs Dam into the Crooked River. Right now there are survivable flows in the Crooked below the North Unit Irrigation District diversion just above Smith Rocks. When the flows out of Bowman Dam are reduced to 10 cfs in August, however, any remaining adults, their eggs, and any fry that have hatched will be in mortal peril.
Last month I wrote about ODFW’s plans to close the Deschutes River to steelhead fishing, yesterday they made it official. The entire lower river is closed until at least August 15. If more steelhead return than is anticipated, steelhead fishing may be opened after August 15. I’m not holding my breath. ODFW is maintaining a pretty good website on this topic which I encourage you to visit.
On May 23rd the first spring chinook of the season was passed through the Opal Springs fish ladder. I hope there is enough water in the Crooked River for it. Recently, the river has been as low as 12 cfs below the NUID diversion. For most of the past 2 months, the Crooked has been around 2 to 4 cfs below the OID diversion. I took a photo when I walked across the river near the City of Prineville wetlands project when it was at 4 cfs. As you can see, in the deepest spot the water barely went over the top of my feet.
The 2021-2022 Deschutes summer steelhead season officially ended April 30. While steelhead can start appearing in the lower most sections of the Deschutes in June, most don’t arrive at the upper stretches until winter with stragglers arriving in March and April. According to Portland General Electric, the final reintroduction count for this past season is 46 steelhead. (Look at the spreadsheets from May 2021 through April 2022.) The 2020-2021 season saw 52 adult returns and the total for the season prior to that was 57. Clearly, the return of only 46 adult steelhead from the Upper Deschutes Basin is disappointing. On the other hand, the return of wild and hatchery adults in the entire river has been plummeting.
Tomorrow I leave the country for a 10-day “bucket list” fly fishing trip and thought I would leave you with a few brief glimpses of steelhead swimming up the Opal Springs fish ladder. The latest counts are from December 21 through January 10 when 70 fish of all species were detected, including 54 redbands and 4 steelhead. Steelhead returns remain very low, but a few are now in the Crooked River. Flows in the river are well under targets established by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife for healthy habitat, but the river is not dry in places like it was last year when spring chinook arrived. Let’s hope these steelhead find spawning partners and a place to lay their eggs!
You’ve probably already read about the announcement yesterday from ODFW that a new state record whitefish was caught last month on the Lower Deschutes near Warm Springs. Congrats to Alex Dietz, it must have been fun. This is another example of the fact that the Lower Deschutes is in great shape and that fish are bigger since PGE’s Selective Water Withdrawal tour became operational. To be clear, there are ongoing issues but its past time for the misinformation campaigns to stop.
Desperate times require desperate measures. ODFW did the right thing yesterday by closing the entire Deschutes River to all steelhead fishing for the rest of the year. They also closed the river below Moody Rapids to all fishing. I think that the entire river should be closed to all fishing, but the section below Moody is the most important, and I am thankful for the actions ODFW has taken. The problem is that there have been widespread reports of (selfish, short-sighted, unethical) anglers targeting steelhead while claiming to be fishing for salmon or trout. Hopefully, that will soon change. See ODFW’s press release below.
On September 4th, The Conservation Angler sent this letter to the chairpersons of the Oregon, Washington, and Idaho fish & wildlife/game commissions. The next day I sent the letter below to Shaun Clements, ODFW Deputy Administrator for Fish Division. Both letters advocate for more stringent regulations to protect steelhead this year. The end of the partial closure on steelhead fishing is only a few days away, the outlook for these fish remains dire, and no new protections have been announced. What is the role of these agencies? To protect or oversee the continued decline of these fish?
According to ODFW, as of September 20, a total of 59 steelhead have passed through the Sherars Falls fish ladder. Last year was a very poor return year and the count was 209. We are currently at only 28% of that. As I argued here, the current partial closure of the Lower Deschutes to steelhead fishing is inadequate, and it is now about to expire. I again encourage you to think carefully about targeting these fish anywhere on the Deschutes. Do you really want to be that angler?
It is important to note that only a portion of returning steelhead go through the ladder, many go up the falls. More than 59 have undoubtedly moved past Sherars. Nevertheless, if you thought steelhead were sparse last year, it is much worse this year. The total steelhead run in the entire Columbia Basin remains at the lowest level ever recorded.
North Unit Irrigation District (NUID) is working on plans to pump up to 400 CFS of water from Lake Billy Chinook (LBC) for use by their patrons. The Bend Bulletin recently had a positive storyabout it as well as an editorial endorsing the idea. This could be an attractive idea but there are simply too many unknowns to have an informed opinion, and there are reasons for concern. The devil is in the details, and we don’t know the details.
My first reaction is that a pumping station at LBC will be another expensive taxpayer funded project for private benefit, may shift water availability and quality issues from one part of the Deschutes River to another, and would not be necessary if the core issues of the water scarcity crisis were addressed. Water waste and misappropriation is our disease. Do we need to spend another $400M of taxpayer dollars for pumping on top of the $1B dollars already needed for canal piping to cure it?
By now you should be aware that two days ago ODFW partially closed steelhead fishing on a few rivers, including parts of the Deschutes during September. For the past three years I have been writing that this should occur, and not just for part of the Deschutes for a single month. Here’s a post I made just 3 weeks ago illustrating how “bleak” the returns have been. In their press release on August 27th, ODFW stated that steelhead returns so far this year are the lowest since counts began in 1938. As of August 20, steelhead counts at Sherars Falls on the Deschutes near Maupin were only 1/3 the already low 2020 counts. Above is a graph showing unclipped steelhead returns over Bonneville Dam, fish destined for all the tributaries of the Columbia. Note that unclipped mostly means wild, but not always. Some unclipped fish are actually hatchery fish that are part of steelhead reintroduction efforts, like in the Upper Deschutes Basin. Also note that the 10 year average in the graph is getting pretty low as the last 10 years have seen poor returns.
I spent time this morning looking at my calendar and thinking about fishing over the next 2-3 months. The end of August is when I would like to switch over to steelhead fishing on the Deschutes River. So, I took a look at the Fish Passage Center website. These are all the steelhead destined for all the rivers above Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, not just the Deschutes. Bleak is about the best I can say, even more bleak than last year’s horrible returns. It’s early in the season, but the graphs say it all. I’m not ready to sell all my steelhead gear yet, but this sure is depressing. You need to ask yourself, is the pleasure you get from fishing worth contributing to the continued decline of these fish? Even with the best catch and release practices, some fish are killed.
A few days ago the Bend Bulletin ran an opinion piece from a local farmer that partially blamed the Endangered Species Act for irrigator water shortages. Below is the response I submitted. Let’s see if they print it.
The Bulletin recently ran a guest column from a Central Oregon farmer asserting that the Endangered Species Act is partly to blame for current water shortages. Many local farmers need more water, but the column is written from a perspective that does not hold up to objective analysis.
Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, co-owners of the Pelton Round Butte Hydroelectric Project on the Deschutes River, held their annual fisheries workshop today. I have been attending these events for many years and can wrap this one up pretty easily. While some of the numbers have changed, the bottom line is that the goal of reintroducing summer steelhead, spring chinook, and sockeye into the Upper Deschutes Basin remains elusive. The number of returning adults of all three species continues to be a small fraction of what is required for self-sustaining populations. That being said, there are good, dedicated people working on the effort and they continue to adapt based on the results of on-going scientific work. Also, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reported that their annual fish sampling once again shows that the operation of the Selective Water Withdrawal tower has had no negative impact on trout populations in the Lower Deschutes River. As detailed in their presentation, trout density and size continues to be the same or better than before the SWW become operational. In a follow up conversation, ODFW confirmed that trout condition factors (health) also continue to be good. I believe that reintroduction remains a worthwhile effort. The biggest issues remain outside the control of PGE/CTWS: low flows in the Crooked River (where most fish want to go), high temperatures, and poor ocean conditions.
Brett Hodgson, recently retired Deschutes District fish biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, sent me this photo taken at 8:15 this morning of the Crooked River at Smith Rocks. He estimates the river is at 5 CFS! The air temperature is supposed to reach at least 90 degrees today. You are looking at what will soon be a dead stretch of river, if it is not already. You could walk across it without getting your feet wet.
So much for anadromous fish reintroduction. Over 60 adult spring chinook salmon have gone through the fish ladder at Opal Springs to be faced with this.
And so much for the benefits of taxpayer funded canal piping. Some of that piping was supposed to increase flows in this stretch of the river. In fact, the minimum is supposed to be 10 CFS, which the river is not at, and 10 CFS is not enough to support fish in any event.
The recent heatwave caused Portland General Electric to release 25% cold bottom water a few days ago into the Lower Deschutes River. The lower river once again has the temperature it would have if the Pelton Round Butte hydroelectric complex was not there. PGE says they will be able to release more cold water in July. Good news for Deschutes anglers.
I have made a few posts about extremely low water in the Crooked River below Prineville and its impact on fish, including spring chinook returns this year. (See here, here, and here.) I was going to wait until the end of July when spring chinook season ends to say more, but the Bulletin ran a story about it today where I am quoted, so here’s more to fill in the gaps.
Due to irrigation withdrawals, the Crooked River is currently so low as to be impassable around Smith Rocks and the City of Prineville. Once the river reaches the Crooked River Ranch golf course, it is recharged by cold, clean water from a series of springs to the extent that it actually resembles the Metolius River by the time it reaches Lake Billy Chinook. As a result, the bottom stretch of the river has sufficiently high quality water to attract spring chinook through the fish ladder at Opal Springs Dam just upstream from LBC. As of today, 12 chinook have passed through the ladder. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they won’t get far. Let’s hope they can find places to spawn in a very short stretch of water.
Here’s more on the extreme low flows on the Crooked River which is currently at 9 CFS below Prineville. As of yesterday, 3 adult spring chinook have swam through the fish ladder at Opal Springs near the mouth of the Crooked River. They won’t get far, however, as the river is impassable for fish their size not far upstream. Below are a couple of photos of the river a little below the North Unit Irrigation District diversion near Smith Rocks. Why doesn’t the Habitat Conservation Plan require flows needed for these reintroduced fish? Probably because they are not yet listed as endangered species in the Deschutes Basin, but steelhead are, and their fry need higher, cleaner flows to survive.
Portland General Electric provided the final reintroduction counts for the 2020-2021 steelhead season last Friday* and once again they were extremely disappointing: a total of 52 steelhead. These are fish from the Upper Deschutes Basin that were captured as out migrating smolts 2 years ago at the Selective Water Withdrawal tower in Lake Billy Chinook, potentially marked and released into the Lower Deschutes River, and which subsequently returned as adults. Last year 57 adults returned. It is almost important to know that the number of all steelhead (wild, hatchery, and reintroduced) captured at the Pelton Trap was very low (1,309).
Once again, I make the case that this is not an issue specifically with the Deschutes River, it is a result of many factors that have led to massive declines in anadromous fish populations throughout the Pacific Northwest. These include global warming which is destroying the food chain in the ocean as well as lowering and warming rivers, dams which remove habitat and impede migration, over fishing, pollution, cross-breeding and competition with hatchery fish, etc. Without large scale reform, wild steelhead in much of the Columbia Basin and beyond are on the path to extinction and hatchery fish could follow.
For those of you who track the reintroduction closely, keep reading.
We can now make a prediction about how the Crooked River will look for the remainder of the year. The executive summary is that the Wild & Scenic section below Bowman Dam, where most anglers spend their time, down to the City of Prineville (CoP), will have good flows during irrigation season and will have low, but survivable flows in non-irrigation season. Below CoP is another story. Flows below CoP will be extremely low, lethally so at times, during irrigation season but then improve during non-irrigation season. Read on for a detailed explanation.
Yesterday, Ochoco Irrigation District notified the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that they were surrendering their preliminary permit to install a hydroelectric facility at Bowman Dam. Simultaneously, Prineville Representative Vikki Breese Iverson introduced House Bill 2610 which could eliminate statewide fish passage requirements for many dams. I simply don’t understand this lack of concern for our environment, rivers, fish, and wildlife. Yes, the cost of providing fish passage at Bowman was projected to be high, but so is canal piping which is getting done with little financial contribution from the applicants. Or, the applicants could provide some other net benefit (e.g., habitat restoration, increased flows, pollution reduction) that would mitigate the lack of passage. OID, the City of Prineville, and Crook County are looking for an easy, one-sided solution to the detriment of the long term environmental health of Oregon.
That’s the title of a recent article from NOAA Fisheries. The article speaks for itself. “It’s notable that in five of the last seven years, the California Current system has been dominated by these large marine heatwaves, which are also the largest heatwaves on record for this area.” And, “these warmer conditions have boosted the odds of harmful algal blooms, shifting distributions of marine life, and changes in the marine food web.” Clearly, the decline of salmon, steelhead, and other anadromous fish is due to both freshwater issues (dams, habitat, hatcheries, etc.) as well as heating oceans. We need to urgently work to improve both freshwater and ocean conditions. Time is running out.
The research study argues that the most prized salmon and steelhead populations along the west coast of North America are in decline, often dramatically so, and that the reasons are complex. Dams are not the sole culprit. This can be a controversial statement in many environmental circles, but it is true. It is well known that anadromous fish are declining in river systems that are not impacted by dams as well as where dams are present. This is not an either-or proposition, however.
For Central Oregonians, the “day trip” on the Deschutes is the stretch from Warm Springs to Trout Creek. While steelhead counts on the Columbia are somewhat elevated from last year’s dismal numbers, it has not translated into good returns on the day trip section so far this season. According to fish counts on the PGE website, a total of 186 steelhead have been captured at the trap near the base of the Pelton Reregulating Dam from May through October. Of those, 8 were true wild fish and were returned to the river. 15 of the fish were planted as fry or smolts above Lake Billy Chinook. Most of these will be released into LBC with the hope they will naturally reproduce in the Crooked River or Whychus Creek. The 163 hatchery fish will mostly be used as brood stock for future hatchery production. These are small numbers, but the next three months typically see the most fish arrive. Keep your fingers crossed.
Ochoco Irrigation District is the latest in Central Oregon to apply for federal funding to upgrade their water distribution system. Details of the proposal as well as information on how to submit comments by September 30th are online. The “Draft Watershed Plan – Environmental Assessment” (Draft-EA) is 155 pages long but easy to read. I encourage you to go through the materials yourself and come to your own conclusions, but here are my comments. Like the previous proposals from other local irrigators, it’s a mixed bag. The common belief is that canal piping is good, and in theory I agree, but the devil is always in the details.
From my perspective, one of the highlights of the Deschutes Fisheries Workshop is the annual report on lower Deschutes fish from ODFW. That presentation did not occur this year, so I talked to Rod French, ODFW Mid-Columbia District Fish Biologist which includes the lower Deschutes. There was a surprise, read on for more.
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
I’m on the email list that discusses water releases from Bowman Dam into the Crooked River. You can get more details by reading prior posts on the topic (see the Crooked River section), but the executive summary is that the water is supposed to be released for irrigators as well as the “maximum benefit” of fish. How that actually occurs is the subject of constant discussion. The latest email contained the graphic above that really illustrates the operation well.
Four dams are slated to be removed on the Klamath River, re-establishing hundreds of miles of habitat to anadromous fish. The long-negotiated plan was to transfer ownership of the dams from PacificCorp to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC), a non-profit formed exclusively to oversee removal. Yesterday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved transfer of ownership but with the stipulation that PacificCorp remain a co-licensee. I listened to the FERC meeting, read their ruling, and was enthused by FERC’s desire to have the dams removed. I also understand their caution to ensure sufficient funding is available to complete removal once started.
This year’s workshop is being held online on July 23rd. Before COVID these workshops were 1.5 days and filled with great information. I have been going for years and always learn from them. This year will be much shorter but still the place to get the latest info on anadromous fish reintroduction efforts. See the agenda and sign up here.
For what it’s worth, here’s the email I sent to ODFW yesterday:
I oppose providing a fish passage waiver for the proposed hydroelectric plant at the base of Bowman Dam. While the cost of installing a ladder may be prohibitive, the proposed mitigation measures do not come close to providing a greater benefit to fish than opening up 500 miles of habitat and reconnecting fish in the upper Crooked River with fish in the lower Crooked River as well as other upper Deschutes Basin waterways. Further, a 50-year FERC license would preclude passage for the same amount of time.Read More »
Bowman Dam was completed by the US Bureau of Reclamation (BoR) in 1961, damming the Crooked River and creating Prineville reservoir. It was built to protect development downstream from flooding, including the City of Prineville, and to provide water for Ochoco Irrigation District (OID) who operates the dam. While these are worthy goals, Bowman Dam has also caused significant environmental damage. OID, Prineville, and Crook County would now like to add a small hydroelectric facility to the base of Bowman Dam and are asking for a waiver to the State of Oregon requirement that fish passage be provided at dams undergoing significant changes. This is a complex issue, below are my thoughts. The waiver application, supporting documents, and analysis by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife can be found here. Public comment on the waiver application is being accepted until June 22nd.Read More »
Adult steelhead start arriving in the Upper Deschutes during the summer and continue through the following April. (Steelhead are amazing.) Today, Portland General Electric released their April adult fish count for the Pelton Trap near the bottom of the re-regulating dam. A total of 57 adult steelhead returned during the 2019-2020 season. 22 of them were released as fry into the upper basin and 35 were released as smolts. There’s no denying that 10 years in, this is a disappointment.Read More »
Here’s the latest snow pack info for Oregon. Pretty grim. Last weekend I did a driving tour of the Cascade Lakes and saw just how low the lakes are for spring. Here’s a photo of the Deschutes arm of Wickiup from two days ago. It’s not just a river yet, but it will be by the end of the summer.Read More »
The fish ladder at Opal Springs has proven remarkably successful. Since it became operational late November through the end of April, thousands of fish from a variety of species have been filmed and identified as moving through it. Suckers and whitefish have moved up from Lake Billy Chinook for spawning. Rainbow, brown, and bull trout have traveled upriver most likely foraging for food. While the primary motivation for installing the fish ladder was to facilitate the reintroduction of salmon and steelhead, the ladder has also provided much needed connectivity between the Crooked, Metolius, and Middle Deschutes rivers. An improved ecosystem will be the result. Below is the breakdown by species.Read More »
We’re practicing social distancing at our house, so last weekend I got the garage organized and caught up on some reading. A couple of weeks ago The Native Fish society sent out an email that neatly encapsulates both my respect and frustration with them. I agree completely that we should be doing everything possible to support wild fish in our rivers and streams. There is no scientific doubt that wild fish are superior to hatchery fish and that large scale planting of hatchery fish for harvest into waters that contain wild fish should be stopped. This is not a purely black and white issue, however, as was stated in research that NFS themselves referred to. Hatcheries can have a role to play outside of simply stocking ponds and lakes for put and take fishing.Read More »
Last week I wrote about the controversy in the angling/conservation community about the use of hatchery fish in the Klamath River following the removal of the lower 4 dams, currently slated to begin in January 2021. I asked a few more questions and heard some good and some bad news from my perspective.Read More »
Believe it or not, if you look at the individual fish count numbers on the PGE website for past years, summer steelhead season in the upper most stretches of the Deschutes extends to the end of April. Some of these fish really take their time to get to their final destination. So, while the return season is not over, we are getting close. As of March 6th, 53 steelhead have been passed above the dams into Lake Billy Chinook. 47 of those were recently counted via radio tags, 22 in the Crooked River, and 3 in the Crooked arm of Lake Billy Chinook, presumably getting ready to head up the river. This once again shows the importance of the fish ladder at Opal Springs.
The excellent fishing in the Klamath Basin should get even better when 4 impassable dams on the Klamath River in California and Oregon are removed (J.C. Boyle, Copco 1 & 2, and Irongate). Dam removal will improve conditions for resident redband trout as well as allow for reintroduction of anadromous fish into their prime historical spawning habitat in the rivers and streams above Klamath Lake. On Thursday I was at a Klamath Lake Land Trust event where I was able to speak with Dave Meurer of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, the organization that will soon own the dams and be charged with their removal.Read More »
The 2019-2020 Deschutes summer steelhead season is not over, but we are close enough to draw conclusions. They continue to be dismal. Steelhead start entering the Deschutes River on their one-way journey to spawn in late spring and early summer. These “summer” steelhead may make it to their spawning grounds in a tributary far upriver as early as September or as late as April. They have an amazing life story. Read More »
Thus far, 19 steelhead have swam from Lake Billy Chinook up the Opal Springs fish ladder into Lake Billy Chinook. Historically, the greatest number of steelhead arrive at the Pelton Fish trap in January and February, so I certainly hope the numbers get even better. Along with the steelhead, 90 rainbow, 53 whitefish, 10 brown trout, and one bull trout have been detected in the ladder, mostly moving upstream. Connecting the Crooked River to the Deschutes and Metolius rivers is excellent news for these fish species as well. So far, so good!
I have read many of the substantial comments on the Draft Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan and associated Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The comments from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs illustrate just how tangled an issue this is. Like many others, the Tribes are extremely critical of the draft HCP and EIS, but in a unique way. While most critical comments ask for more water more quickly in the upper Deschutes in the winter, the Tribes want LESS water than proposed. Keep reading to understand why.Read More »
The new Opal Springs fish ladder became operational on Nov. 15 and an automated fish detection system was installed 4 days later. In the first 13 days (11/19 to 12/1) 23 trout, 28 whitefish, and 3 steelhead have been counted. That’s an excellent start.
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. Read More »
I like to spend as much time as possible in the Klamath Basin, it has incredible fishing and relatively low pressure. Above is a photo of the Wood River I took yesterday during a hike in the Wood River Wetlands, it was beautiful as always. Below is a photo of my friend Matt with a 26 inch trout he caught when we were fishing there last August.
I spent yesterday evening at the Klamath Lake Land Trust’s annual dinner and fund raiser. The KLLT is a small, woefully underfunded group working to preserve places on the Sycan and Sprague rivers where steelhead and salmon may spawn once the impassable dams on the Klamath are removed in 2022. I was glad to see a number of Klamath residents open their wallets for this worthy goal.
The spectacular fishing in this part of the state may soon be even better.
Last June, Portland General Electric released a comprehensive, multiyear water quality study of Lake Billy Chinook, the rivers that supply it, and the lower Deschutes River into which water is released. Among other things, the report showed that the Crooked River contains significant amounts of pollution. This pollution combined with sunlight generates suspended algae on the surface of Lake Billy Chinook which is subsequently released into Lake Simtutus and then the lower Deschutes River. Algae blooms are increasing in occurrence, leading the Oregon Health Authority to warn last June that “harmful algae blooms” could “routinely develop in the lake”.
One of the shortcomings in the Habitat Conservation Plan is lack of adequate consideration for water quality. Clearly, high temperatures and pollution can have adverse impacts on fish and the aquatic environment, including mortality (“take”). Irrigation return flows are “covered activities” but the HCP does not adequately examine impacts on water quality from agricultural runoff or provide for minimum standards in covered waterways.Read More »
The long awaited Habitat Conservation Plan for the Deschutes Basin was recently released. Like many in the environmental community, I find the HCP to be deeply flawed. Below is a high level summary. The HCP will be the subject of a series of posts over the next two weeks, each providing detail on a particular part of this complex topic. Here is the official web site. It is hard to overstate the importance of the HCP as it will determine the fate of most rivers in Central Oregon for the next 30 years.Read More »
I have written about the “Blob” in the past (most recently, here and here). It is the much higher ocean temperatures in the North Pacific which have disrupted food chains and imperiled many historic fish runs. An argument can be made that ocean heating is currently the most worrisome of all the conditions leading to the drastic declines in salmon and steelhead populations in the Pacific Northwest. Here is the first part of a three-part article from NOAA discussing the Blob. Below is a graphic showing the re-emergence of the Blob this year. It could be worse than the original one, it already has more area of the most extreme warming, and is still forming.
Here’s a final comment on the recent PRB Fisheries Workshop. While I respect the earnest effort being put into the reintroduction effort there is just no getting around the fact that results remain dismal. A total of 36 upper basin origin adult steelhead returned in the 2018/2019 season (17 the year before), 5 spring chinook returned in 2018 (20 in 2017, the numbers are going to be better but still low for 2019), and 38 sockeye returned in 2018. This is simply depressing numbers but it doesn’t mean the reintroduction effort should be abandoned or ridiculed. Anadromous fish were denied passage since the mid-1960s and re-establishing them is going to take time. Short of tearing out the dams, the efforts based on the best available science are being made to establish viable upper basin populations and a roadmap for doing so can now be found on PGE’s website. (Go to 2019 Fisheries Workshop Resources / Reintroduction Roadmap.) They have a long way to go but an honest and determined attempt is being made.
The July 24th Source Weekly contained a guest column by Greg McMillan, president of the Deschutes River Alliance, that needs a response. It is absolutely true that attempts to reintroduce salmon and steelhead into the upper Deschutes basin above Lake Billy Chinook have been extremely disappointing. It is important to understand, however, that adult returns for salmon and steelhead have been plunging in the entire Columbia River basin and much of the Pacific Northwest. The truth is that many anadromous fish runs are on the path to extinction due to habitat loss, dams, over harvest, hatcheries, and the heating of the Pacific which has led to the collapse of the food web in many areas. This has nothing to do with local reintroduction efforts.Read More »
The fish ladder at the Opal Springs Hydroelectric Project at the mouth of the Crooked River is nearing completion. Scheduled to go online this fall, volitional passage could be a huge shot in the arm for reintroduction efforts as the overwhelming majority of adult steelhead and chinook passed into Lake Billy Chinook try to go up the Crooked. The Crooked River Watershed Council has released this video about the passage project which is worth viewing.Read More »
Rod French, ODFW’s Mid-Columbia District Fish Biologist, presented at last week’s Fisheries Workshop. This annual presentation by ODFW has been largely unchanged for years, which is excellent news. Trout have been surveyed in the lower Deschutes since the 1970s and there have been no observed negative impacts on them from the operation of the Selective Water Withdrawal tower in Lake Billy Chinook. If anything, trout are larger and more abundant now, which is to be expected given the more natural temperature profile of the river. Below are a lot more details, or take a look at Rod’s presentation.Read More »
The 25th annual Pelton Round Butte Fisheries Workshop was the past two days. I have been going for years and, as usual, it was an overwhelming amount of information. I plan to follow up with some of the presenters to get a better understanding of their data and hope to have more detailed posts soon. In the meantime, here’s a quick list of the highlights from my perspective.Read More »
Last night I attended the Bend premier of Artifishal, “a film about people, rivers, and the fight for the future of wild fish and the environment that supports them. It explores wild salmon’s slide toward extinction, threats posed by fish hatcheries and fish farms, and our continued loss of faith in nature”. Produced by Patagonia and heavily promoted in the Pacific NW by the Native Fish Society, I found the film to be visually and emotionally powerful but lacking in nuance. Clearly, hatcheries are a problem for wild fish, but they are only part of a complex web of issues.Read More »
Portland General Electric’s long awaited lower Deschutes River water quality study was recently released. At over 600 pages it took me some time to get through, here are my initial impressions. This study is critically important to the ongoing effort to reintroduce anadromous fish into the upper Deschutes Basin and the operation of the Selective Water Withdrawal tower. Also note that the Deschutes River Alliance’s lawsuit against PGE/CTWS (dismissed but under appeal) is based on allegations of water quality violations. The author of the water quality study will present and answer questions at the upcoming Fisheries Workshop. Read More »
I don’t write much about kokanee and sockeye, but they are part of the effort to reintroduce anadromous fish into the upper Deschutes Basin. The tribes frequently talk about the cultural significance of sockeye but they seem to be of secondary importance in reintroduction efforts. As a fly angler who likes to target large fish, I am also very aware that kokanee are the primary food source for bull trout in Lake Billy Chinook.Read More »
The annual Pelton Round Butte Fisheries Workshop is rapidly approaching so I have been reviewing notes from last year along with updates since then. I’ll make a few posts from that review over the next week. Like I have said before, if you are interested in learning about what is really happening in the lower Deschutes River, Lake Billy Chinook, and anadromous fish reintroduction efforts, you should attend.
Portland General Electric has recently been talking about above average returns of reintroduced spring chinook this year. I first saw mention of this in theirJune newsletter, then there was this story on KTVZ, and then today’s story in the Bend Bulletin. I hesitated to write about these returns but given the coverage, here’s my two cents. Without a doubt this is good news but with a total of 46 adult fish so far this year returns remain dismal. PGE is crediting the improvement to operational changes, specifically releasing hatchery reared smolts rather than fry along with nighttime operation of the Selective Water Withdrawal tower during out migration periods. I certainly hope these are the reasons. Time will tell, however, if this is an aberration, like the recent one year spike in Sockeye returns that has not repeated itself, or the beginning of a true recovery. I’m hopeful, but cautious.
As I have written about repeatedly in the past, if you want to hear the latest science and updates on what is happening in the Lower Deschutes, you should attend the Pelton Round Butte Fisheries Workshop. The 25th annual workshop is next month, July 17 & 18, at The Riverhouse Convention Center in Bend. You can sign up and get the agenda here. This meeting should be especially interesting. Along with the normal updates on salmon and steelhead reintroduction efforts, the results of the long overdue water quality study will be released. You can read the latest PGE/CTWS newsletter via the link above. The complete water quality study will be posted on their site on June 20, so come to the workshop prepared to ask questions. I hope to see you there and, as usual, will post my summary of the meeting.
Yesterday ODFW released their projections for 2019 summer salmon and steelhead returns for the Columbia River basin. The outlook is for another bleak year. “Due to the low projected returns for upriver summer steelhead, additional protective regulations are needed this fall including a one steelhead daily bag limit and area-specific steelhead retention closures. The rolling 1-2 month closures start in August and progress upriver following the steelhead return to reduce take of both hatchery and wild fish. These closures affect the mainstem Columbia and the lower reaches of specific tributaries.” This includes the Deschutes below Moody where only one hatchery steelhead may be kept all year (June 16 – December 31) but none from August 1 to September 31.
The official Deschutes steelhead season is from April 1 to March 31, so the 2018/2019 season is now over. Today, PGE released their March monthly newsletter which stated that a total of 35 upper basin origin adult steelhead returned and were passed above the Pelton Round Butte project and released into Lake Billy Chinook. Clearly, this is a dismal number. You can see the number of smolts that were released downstream here. Assuming that adult returns were from 2016 smolts that’s a return rate of only 0.87% (not 8.7%, I missed a decimal point in the original post). There is hope for some improvement in the adult return count, however, if not the percentage. In 2017 and 2018 steelhead smolt counts were much higher. 2017 was a better water year and in both years more smolts were planted. Starting next year only smolts will be planted. Read more about this here.
This spring marks the last stocking of fry as part of the upper Deschutes Basin salmon and steelhead reintroduction effort. Yesterday I was part of the crew helping with the final chinook salmon fry stocking and backpacked fry into the lower Crooked River canyon as well as where Alder Springs meets Whychus Creek not far from the middle Deschutes. As I wrote about here, the reintroduction effort has been a disappointment for many reasons one of which is the unsuccessful fry stocking effort and a new approach is needed.Read More »
Last week the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society held their annual meeting in Bend. I attended the 21 presentations on Water & Climate. I’ll make a few posts with highlights and, hopefully, some copies of presentations I have requested. One of the presentations was on the unintended consequences of selective water withdrawal at Cougar Dam on the South Fork of the McKenzie River. There are some interesting analogues to what is happening on the Deschutes.Read More »
The latest issue of The Osprey is now available. If you like to read scientific articles about steelhead and salmon conservation, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, then this is the journal for you. I encourage you to subscribe and help keep them going. This issue has a couple of articles that once again illustrate the peril facing anadromous fish in many PacNW river systems. It also contains an article on the lower Deschutes River which I found problematic. Read More »
As I say in the “About” section of this blog, I believe that WaterWatch is the most important water conservation organization in Oregon. They have done amazing work to restore flows, breach dams, and protect groundwater. Their latest newsletter is well worth reading. The Osprey is an excellent, research-based publication for anyone interested in anadromous fish in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. TheSeptember issue is filled with great data, including the statement that the full cost of every hatchery steelhead returning to the Columbia Basin is on the order of $1,000, while degrading the opportunity for wild fish to recover. I have read this issue a couple of times now and underlined much of it.
October through the end of the year is one of my favorite times to fish the lower Deschutes River. The crowds are gone and the trout are still there. On Halloween a friend and I had a good day. One of the trout I landed measured at just under 18”. The bonus was this hatchery steelhead which was a thrill to land using trout gear. Nevertheless, the outlook for wild Deschutes steelhead remains bleak.Read More »
Unfortunately, as of the end of September things still look pretty bleak for wild fish this season. The trap at Sherars Falls has captured a total of 44 wild steelhead. Only 3 of these have made it to the the trap at the bottom of the Pelton Round Butte complex (Lake Billy Chinook, etc.). Two of those are actually hatchery steelhead that were released above Lake Billy Chinook but did not have their adipose fins clipped. As I detailed in a series of posts starting here, these fish could be on a path to extinction in the not too distant future.
I was wandering around various angling conservation websites and came across “How does catch and release affect steelhead?” on the Wild Steelhead Coalition website. It was a summary of a study done on the Bulkley River in British Columbia. The primary takeaways for me are that I will continue to avoid steelheading on the Deschutes for now and I need to start using a net. Like many fly anglers, I land a steelhead by bringing it close enough to grab by the tail before removing the hook. The study showed that “tailed” fish had higher levels of stress than netted fish.Read More »
The following is a guest column I submitted to the Bend Bulletin a while back but which has not been published. It is a summary of some recent blog posts that I believe are worth further exposure in a timely manner.
Last year was one of the poorest on record for steelhead in the Deschutes. After some initial optimism for a modest rebound, the forecast for returns this season has been lowered to be even worse. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has now closed the entire Columbia River and lower John Day River to steelhead retention. ODFW went further and asked anglers to avoid steelhead fishing altogether for the remainder of the year. Wild steelhead are currently on a path to extinction in the Deschutes and entire Columbia Basin.Read More »
After 10 years of effort it is clear that the current approach to reintroducing anadromous fish into the upper Deschutes Basin above the Pelton Round Butte project is not producing acceptable results. Fisheries managers acknowledge this but often state that it will take more time. They reply that it has been over 50 years since these fish were cut off from their traditional spawning grounds and reintroduction is a complex problem. This is true, but I believe the current dire state of steelhead returns to the Deschutes River should provide impetus to take bolder action. This is a long post, but worth reading if you care about the future of steelhead in the Deschutes River.Read More »
I got back from my latest fishing excursion (that’s a measured 27” wild, native rainbow trout) and saw The Bulletin published an editorial last Friday about the Deschutes River Alliance’s lawsuit being dismissed. What bothered me in their editorial was the use of the DRA’s tagline of cooler, cleaner water for the Deschutes. The facts on this topic are well established. The quantity of water in Lake Billy Chinook is not sufficient to keep the lower Deschutes “cooler” for the entire summer and “cleaner” is largely a function of agricultural and urban water runoff. Read More »
The Deschutes River Alliance has argued for years that PGE/CTWS’s attempt to reintroduce anadromous fish into the upper Deschutes Basin has harmed the Deschutes River below the Pelton Round Butte complex of dams. As part of their advocacy the DRA brought a lawsuit against PGE/CTWS claiming that the project violated the Clean Water Act. On Monday the suit was dismissed for lacking “material fact”. Read More »
Most anadromous smolts outmigrate in the spring. While a few stragglers may still move through the system over the remainder of the year, at this point we have a pretty complete count of this year’s totals for fish moving from the Crooked, Metolius, and upper Deschutes rivers to the Selective Water Withdrawal tower in Lake Billy Chinook where they are captured and then released into the lower Deschutes.
CHS are chinook, STS are steelhead, and SOC are sockeye. There’s some good news and some bad news in these figures.Read More »
Not long ago I was one of the volunteers who helped ODFW with their annual trout survey on the Crooked River. As reported in The Bulletin, it appears that trout numbers have rebounded from their recent record lows and are now up to 3,500 a mile. This is welcome news, but it is only part of the story.Read More »
The Deschutes River Alliance recently released their 2017 lower Deschutes water quality study. I admire their continued efforts to be stewards of the lower Deschutes. I also remain critical of their work and have a simple question: if the water quality of the lower Deschutes is so bad then why are the fish so healthy and abundant? As an angler, that’s what I really care about. Perhaps the DRA should spend more time studying the fish and less time speculating about what may or may not happen to them based on their views of water quality.Read More »
(I stole the photo of Camp Polk Meadow Preserve and Whychus Creek from the Deschutes Land Trust website. Photo credit: Russ McMillan.)
When the reintroduction effort began a major focus was the restoration of Whychus Creek, a tributary of the middle Deschutes. The thought was that steelhead in particular would target Whychus as they are not native to the Metolius and the Crooked River is blocked by Opal Springs Dam. Restoring Whychus Creek would also provide dramatically improved habitat for wild, native species, in particular redband trout. This restoration effort was spearheaded by the Deschutes Partnership who purchased sections of the creek for restoration, worked on restoring flows, and performed habitat improvement, along with state and federal agencies. It was and continues to be a long-term, expensive effort. Some progress has been made but there’s still a long way to go.Read More »
At last week’s fisheries workshop, ODFW gave their annual report of fisheries population and health for the lower Deschutes. Since the 1970s they have been electrofishing the same stretches from Warm Springs to Jones Creek. As reported in past years, trout continue to be in excellent health. Condition factors were good before operation of the SWW and they are at least as good now. If anything, the fish appear to be growing faster and are larger.Read More »
Slightly off topic for this blog, but I was frustrated with multiple fly fishing trips for bull trout at LBC this spring. The photo is of one of my sons from last spring when big fish like this were common. This spring they were nonexistent. I contacted the fisheries biologists at PGE and they said they had no evidence of a population drop and shared a chart of redd spawning surveys in Metolius tributaries which continued to show a robust population.Read More »
Last week was the annual Pelton Round Butte Fisheries Workshop. Once again, it was an information filled conference with presentations covering a wide range of fisheries issues encompassing the entire Deschutes Basin. I am going to spend a few weeks digging into some of the presentations, I have many follow up questions for some of the presenters, but there were a few topics that are quick and easy to report on, like Opal Springs fish passage.Read More »
I’m back from the latest ODFW Restoration & Enhancement board meeting, this time held in Klamath Falls. We had two great days of touring past, current, and future fisheries projects. I have always been surprised by how few Central Oregon anglers venture to the Klamath Basin. It is only 2-3 hours away, depending on where you go, and the fishing is both spectacular and uncrowded.Read More »
As you know, the state of Oregon works on a 2-year (“biennium”) cycle. State agencies are now preparing their 2019-2021 budget requests which will be sent to the governor and then to the legislature for final approval. ODFW voluntarily gathers public feedback on their budget through what they call the External Budget Advisory Committee, of which I am a member. Last week was the final EBAC meeting and I am happy to report that ODFW appears to be in reasonable shape. They are far from flush with cash but they are not cutting personnel and services like they have in the recent past. They are also gearing up to work on what they state is potentially the largest anadromous fish reintroduction in the nation in the Klamath Basin.Read More »
This afternoon I was able to tour the Deschutes Land Trust’s new Ochoco Preserve. The preserve is currently farmland just outside Prineville that will be converted to wetlands over the next decade or so. It is where McKay and Ochoco Creeks meet the Crooked River. The potential for new, high quality habitat for native redband trout is very exciting. These creeks were also important spawning areas for anadromous Chinook salmon and steelhead and may be again once the fish ladder at Opal Springs Dam is complete. I encourage you to visit the DLT’s site, learn more, and become a member if you are able.
The Deschutes steelhead season officially ranges from April 1 until March 31. Below is a table with the final returns of adult fish to the trap at the base of PGE/CTWS’s Pelton Round Butte complex of dams. There’s no way to sugar coat the news, it’s simply bleak. There were record low returns of steelhead across all categories (see the table below). Read More »
The Deschutes River Alliance has recently released a new video titled “A River Worth Fighting For” touching on their suit against Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs alleging violations of the Clean Water Act. They spend more time illustrating economic hardship in Maupin which they attribute to those violations. While I am completely in favor of the Clean Water Act being enforced, and sympathetic to businesses who rely on tourism, I believe this video is misleading in many respects.Read More »
ODFW & PGE are looking for volunteers in March and April to help with the reintroduction of salmon and steelhead into the upper Deschutes Basin. I have helped multiple times with these activities and always find it worthwhile.
For over 20 years Portland General Electric and now the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs have been hosting the Pelton Round Butte Fisheries Workshop. This is an annual gathering of state and federal agencies, NGOs, and the curious to review and discuss the latest science on the Deschutes and its tributaries. I have been going for a few years and find it fascinating. This year should have the usual updates on reintroduction and fisheries health, the final results of the macroinvertebrate study, and the results of the water quality study. It will be very interesting.
This year the workshop will be June 13 & 14 at Tetherow Resort in Bend. Everyone is welcome and I encourage you to attend. To get on the email list, contact Jessica Graeber (Jessica.Graeber@pgn.com).
At last year’s conference, I took over 7 pages of notes. Below are the highlights from those notes.Read More »
The Deschutes River 2017/2018 summer steelhead season still has a few weeks left but returns have been bleak. As of the end of January 2018 only 13 upper basin origin steelhead have been captured in the Pelton trap a little upstream from the Warm Springs Bridge, and none in December. This will likely be the lowest return year since upper basin returns began in 2011.Read More »
As reported in the NY Times, today NASA stated that 2017 was the second hottest year on record, trailing only 2016. Unfortunately, “this is the new normal”. While the Pacific is currently a little cooler than normal due to a weak La Niña condition, it is not expected to last. “It doesn’t seem like there’s any evidence things are cooling down.” This is not welcome news for Central Oregon steelhead anglers.
NOAA Fisheries released a reportyesterday stating that sea lion populations have rebounded to new highs and are now at their “optimum sustainable population”. As discussed in aprior post, sea lions have become a significant threat to some anadromous fish populations. Hopefully this finding will allow some action to protect threatened steelhead and salmon populations.Read More »