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.
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.
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.
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.
My latest column appeared in the Bend Bulletin today. Once again, I appreciate their increased coverage of local conservation issues and occasionally letting me submit something. If you don’t have a subscription or have used you your free views for the month, here’s the text.
I have been a member of Central Oregon Flyfishers since 2004. Like so much else in Central Oregon, COF has grown considerably since then, mostly with new members from out of the area. At last month’s COF meeting a question was asked about fishing the Crooked River in the winter during low flows which made me think it was time for another overview of how Bowman Dam and the Crooked River are managed. Here’s a quick recap.
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.
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.
A reader recently contacted me concerned about low flows in the Crooked River. As I have written about in the past, Prineville Reservoir is currently being managed by Ochoco Irrigation District and the US Fish & Wildlife Service to release 50 CFS during the winter (non-irrigation season). In my opinion, this is in violation of the 2014 Crooked River Act. At the beginning of the irrigation season there was more than enough water in the “fish bucket” to meet the Act’s 80 CFS target over the winter. Worse, they are not even releasing 50 CFS as the river has been at 47 CFS for some time now. 3 CFS might not seem like much, but OID is currently asking to spend tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money to add 4.8 CFS. Once again, fish, wildlife, and taxpayers are losing.
After almost four hours of testimony and discussion, the ODFW Commission denied the request by Ochoco Irrigation District, the City of Prineville, and Crook County to provide a waiver for fish passage! Get more background information here. I certainly hope that the applicants follow the advice of the Commission and come back with an improved application. Clearly, adding a hydro facility to Bowman Dam has real benefit, but there needs to be real benefit to fish as well.
As I wrote about hereand here, Ochoco Irrigation District, the City of Prineville, and Crook County would like to add a hydroelectric facility to Bowman Dam (Prineville Reservoir) without providing fish passage. This would violate the law so they are asking the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife for a waiver. The ODFW Commission will make their ruling this Friday. You can find the meeting agenda here, and sign up to testify (via Zoom) here. Public testimony at prior hearings has been overwhelming against providing a fish passage waiver but the applicants will make their best case for it on Friday so a strong showing by conservationists and fish advocates is essential. Lend your voice to fish, it’s not painful at all.
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.
At the end of 2014, the Crooked River Collaborative Water Security and Jobs Act was passed. Commonly known as the “Crooked River Act”, I was a minor participant in the negotiation of this controversial legislation. Many people whom I respect continue to believe that the Crooked River Act was a giveaway to irrigators and a loss for fish and wildlife. I disagree with them, but the way in which the bill is being implemented does not meet the spirit in which it was negotiated. Read on for an overview of the bill, how it is working, how it is not, and why this is an even more important topic given the impending release of the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan.
Here’s how our local reservoirs and rivers look as of the end of the day yesterday (click here for a direct link). Crane Prairie still has a lot of water as it is held fairly constant until late summer to maintain endangered species habitat. Haystack is nearly full as it is intermediate storage for North Unit Irrigation District. NUID’s main storage is Wickiup which will most likely be empty before the end of irrigation season. Prineville Reservoir is managed for both irrigation and fish. As of August 5th, it has 41,820 acre feet of irrigation water and 23,380 acre feet of “fish water”.
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.
All public comments pertaining to the requested fish passage waiver are part of the public record. I requested a copy of them, which you can see here. There is some grey area as a few were not perfectly clear, but by my count there were 171 letters in opposition to the waiver and 12 in favor. (In other words, the overwhelming majority asked that fish passage be provided.) I thought the letters made for interesting reading and recognized many of the writers. The final decision is scheduled to be made in September.
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 »
The latest report from Opal Springs says that over 1,000 largescale suckers moved through the fish passage the last 2 weeks of March. I don’t know anything about these fish so did some web searches and asked Brett Hodgson, ODFW Deschutes District Fish Biologist, about them. It turns out that some people like to fish for them, and they taste good. Brett emailed me that “suckers historically were an important source of protein for Native Americans in periods when salmon were not available”. I may have to target them with a sinking line and an egg pattern someday.Read More »
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 »
While the winter has started out somewhat dry in Central Oregon, things look good for the Crooked River this winter. Prineville Reservoir was not drawn down to very low levels over the summer and is currently 57% full. The majority of that is “fish water”, meaning it is not earmarked for irrigation use, and can be released for fish and wildlife. 93 cfs is currently being let out into the Crooked, which provides reasonable habitat for fish, and this amount should be maintained throughout the winter. Some fish water may even be left over. Of course, higher flows will likely occur if the reservoir completely fills over the winter. So, right now it looks like next spring and summer could be good for fishing on the Crooked.
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 »
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 »
Three federal agencies (Bureau of Reclamation, National Marine Fisheries Service, and US Fish & Wildlife) manage water releases out of Prineville Reservoir into the Crooked River. As of last week, they believe flows for fish and wildlife can be maintained through the winter. Prineville Reservoir has a capacity of 148,640 acre feet of water, approximately half of which is guaranteed for irrigation. Water in excess of that at the beginning of irrigation season is “fish water” to be released for the “maximum biological benefit” for fish and wildlife. Irrigation season ends in a month and Prineville Reservoir is still 66% full, leaving plenty of fish water to release during the winter. Keep reading for more details.Read More »
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 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 »
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 »
Well, that’s an acronym filled title. Here are Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife’s comments on Ochoco Irrigation District’s Pre-Application Document to build a hydro electric facility on Bowman Dam. It’s 37 pages and filled with questions about how the facility and it’s transmissions lines will impact fish and wildlife on the Crooked River. Some are pretty basic, like how will flows be ramped up and down so as to not negatively impact fish? Even a cursory reading shows that it is far too early in the process to give a blanket endorsement to this project, even if you agree (like I do) that the idea seems to have merit.Read More »
As I wrote about last November, Ochoco Irrigation District is in the preliminary stages of applying for a FERC license to add a hydroelectric plant to Bowman Dam. Here is OID’s “Pre-Application Document“. The first of multiple comment periods ends on Monday. There is a significant amount of design work left to be done, studies that need to be undertaken, and many unanswered questions about how this project will impact the Crooked River below Prineville Reservoir. A fair amount of negotiation will need to take place between OID and various agencies before final approval is granted. Nevertheless, the latest Central Oregon Flyfisher newsletter states that the board voted to send a letter of support for the project which will include language that throws away the most important bargaining chip for the conservation community.Read More »
Yesterday, Jeff Perin of The Fly Fishers Place in Sisters had a Facebook post about flows out of Prineville Reservoir into the Crooked River being too high. They are certainly too high for any fishing. The flows into the reservoir are 1,625 cfs but the flows out are 2,662 cfs. So, what gives? I have not talked to anyone at the Bureau of Reclamation (BoR) about this, and am loathe to defend them given their record of almost never adequately considering fish and wildlife in their release decisions, but I don’t think that the current release level into the Crooked is too high for the current conditions – although it certainly reached what could be disastrous levels for trout just a few days ago.Read More »
Today the US Bureau of Reclamation is increasing flows out of Prineville Reservoir into the Crooked River from 93 to 250 cfs and to 500 cfs tomorrow. Flows will likely be raised higher in the coming days and stay that way for some time. There is a large snowpack in the Ochoco Mountains and it is raining. Flows into the reservoir are now at 2,500 cfs and the BOR is switching to flood control mode.
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 »
Here is a recent report from the Bureau of Reclamation on the water outlook for Prineville Reservoir. As you can see on page 3, a few days ago the reservoir was 35% full and flows into the Crooked River were only 49 cfs (47 cfs today), which is below the target set by ODFW for fish needs and the 80 cfs target in the Crooked River legislation. In summary, the BOR presentation implies that the outlook is not promising for the reservoir to fill which means flows into the Crooked River next winter after irrigation season ends will also likely be low. Keep reading for some commentary on the presentation prepared by BOR.Read More »
For years, the Crooked River has been plagued by periodic fish kills. There have been two culprits: sustained low flows, especially when combined with freezing temperatures in the winter, and excess total dissolved gases. TDG is not as well known as low flows but it can be equally deadly. A solution in the form of a new hydroelectric facility may be in the future.Read More »
A reporter at the Bend Bulletin saw my post on the potential for a fish kill on the Crooked River this winter and wrote this article. If you’ve ever been quoted for an article you know how it can be a frustrating experience. So it almost goes without saying that I would have written the story differently but I think the reporter did a good job overall of capturing the big picture of what is currently happening on the Crooked River and the challenges it faces this winter.
As Central Oregon anglers know, fish populations in the Crooked River can wildly fluctuate. When there is adequate flow for a few years the fishing can be excellent. On the other hand, a variety of factors including low flows combined with freezing temperatures can create massive fish kills. The last of these events happened in the winter of 2015-2016 when trout populations dropped from 1,383/km to 185/km, the lowest ever recorded. Based on current water management plans, such a kill could happen again this winter.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 »
Most Central Oregon anglers are familiar with the Wild & Scenic section of the Crooked River below Bowman Dam. Of course, the Crooked flows into Prineville Reservoir as well but based on my experience few outside of Crook County have spent much time there. The North Fork of the Crooked does not provide the same abundance of fishing as the Wild & Scenic section, but it flows through a beautiful area of the Ochoco Mountains. Prior to the construction of all the dams below (Bowman, Opal Springs, and the PRB complex), this section of the river was prime spawning habitat for anadromous fish. Big Summit Prairie is also nearby, worthy of a visit on its own. The last time I visited the North Fork my wife and I saw one of the biggest bears I have seen in Oregon, it was a brownish red color and seemed undisturbed by us as we watched it for some time. The North Fork provides habitat for an important strain of wild, native redband trout. ODFW is planning a electrofishing survey of the North Fork and could use some volunteers, this would be a great opportunity to help and see some beautiful country that is not very far away.Read More »
Every year ODFW counts fish in the Crooked River below Bowman Dam. This year they are sampling June 18-22 and are looking for help. Volunteers walk down the bank of the river while ODFW biologists float and shock the river. Fish near the boat are temporally stunned by the electric current and float to the surface where they are captured, counted, and measured. I first helped with this years ago and it made me a far better angler on the Crooked and elsewhere. Even after decades of fishing experience and “reading the water”, I was amazed to see where fish were holding and in what numbers. If you are interested in helping, contact Tim Porter, Assistant District Fish Biologist in Prineville, at Timothy.K.Porter@state.or.us or (541) 447-5111 ext. 24. Let him know which day(s) you can help and he will get back to you with more detailed info. You need to be able to carry buckets of stunned fish back upstream to release them near where they were captured. The day usually lasts from 8:30 am until 2 pm.
Yesterday I had a productive meeting with the US Fish & Wildlife Service who wanted to discuss some of my posts. They suggested we meet again soon to explore additional topics in more detail, but they did want to go into my recent Crooked River post.Read More »
The proposed Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan includes a section on the Crooked River (see pages 34 to 37). While I have heard some in the angling and conservation communities speak favorably about the proposal for the Crooked, I am not in agreement.
In summary, my concerns are:
There is no scientific justification for the 50 cfs average minimum target during the winter and it is unclear what is meant by “average”.
There is no provision for reducing the incidence of gas bubble disease.
There is no mention of water quality.
It does not address the low flow, high temperature problem that exists below the Wild & Scenic section during irrigation season.
After years of effort the final funding for a volitional fish ladder at Opal Springs Dam was obtained earlier this month. There are some regulatory hurdles remaining but construction should begin in the spring and be complete within two years. Opal Springs is a small hydroelectric facility owned by Deschutes Valley Water District about a quarter mile up the Crooked River from where it enters Lake Billy Chinook. Downstream fish passage has been available, mostly through the turbines, but not upstream passage.Read More »