The Associated Press recently released, “Droughts haves, have-nots test how to share water in the West“, along with an associated video. AP covers the drought here in Central Oregon, the impacts on North Unit Irrigation District patrons, and implementing water markets as a solution. Kate Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, makes a good case for that. I encourage you to read the article and watch the video. This is a big, complex issue, AP only covers a portion of it, but this is the best coverage of this part I have seen.
I continue to be taken at how late so many are to understanding the issues. A local farmer is quoted as saying he only started paying attention to water availability two months ago because it was simply always there. Yikes! Irrigation districts, government agencies, municipalities, NGOS, and concerned individual citizens like me have been tracking and participating in forums on this topic for many years. How could a farmer whose livelihood depends on water not be aware of what is going on in the Deschutes Basin? I understand politicians avoiding the issue, but the rest of us need to get engaged. The worst is yet to come as our water table drops. Farmers are not the only ones at risk. The article touches on the fact that California made changes in their water laws, we need to force our politicians to do the same.
The Bulletin printed my latest opinion piece / rant today, “Misplaced blame and anger about water“. Once again, they asked me to supply evidence for my claims, which I am thankful for. Traditional, fact-based journalism is something we should all support and cherish. For those of you who do not have a subscription, I’ve reproduced my submission below. You should subscribe, however.
This article could be about Central Oregon in the near future and is worth reading. The Colorado River is a mirror of the issues we face locally: global warming, unsustainable water use, archaic water laws, booming populations, wasteful agricultural practices, spineless politicians, etc. Unless something changes soon we will share the same fate.
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.
The Oregon Water Resources Department has a weekly drought report email. You can sign up for it here. You can see this week’s report here. We should all be familiar with graphs showing current drought conditions in Central Oregon (we’re mostly in extreme or exceptional drought) and current stream flows (they are well below normal overall). Above is an interesting chart showing soil moisture content that you may not be as familiar with. Deschutes County soil is dry overall, especially in the Cascades, which is the source of our water. The takeaway is that it is going to take numerous above average snow years to recover soil moisture to “normal” levels. This is important given that the vast majority of our water comes out of the ground.
This press release from ODFW was issued today. What a bummer. I guess I’ll be extending my trout fishing for as long as possible.
North Umpqua River, tributaries, closed to all angling
August 9, 2021
ROSEBURG, Ore – Low numbers of summer steelhead returning to the North Umpqua River prompted state fishery managers to close the river and its tributaries to all angling from the mouth to the marker below Soda Springs Dam. The emergency closure is effective Aug. 10 through Nov. 30, 2021.
Initial counts of summer steelhead passing Winchester Dam are historically low at about 20 percent of average. These counts are determined from Winchester Dam video of migrating fish as well as from snorkel counts in Steamboat and Canton Creeks.
“This information, along with the continued low flow and high water temperatures, led us to this decision. We plan to have this closure in place through December to provide as much protection as possibly for these wild summer steelhead,” said Evan Leonetti, assistant district fisheries biologist.
Greg Huchko, Umpqua district fish biologist said the decision was not easy to make and he hopes anglers will understand the need for the closure during these unprecedented decisions.
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.
The Deschutes Basin Groundwater Mitigation Program controls how much groundwater can be pumped out of the ground for municipal, agricultural, manufacturing, and other uses. Written into law in 1995 and first implemented in 2002, the Mitigation Program established a cap of 200 CFS (cubic feet per second) of new groundwater rights and requires that most withdrawals be “mitigated” by new surface flows from another source. After 20 years, there is still approximately 20 CFS left in the cap. By statute, every 5 years the Oregon Water Resources Department is required to submit their review of the program, including the consideration of public comments. That review is currently underway with comments due by August 25, 2021. Comments can be made to Sarah Henderson, OWRD Flow Restoration Program Coordinator, at email@example.com.
This is a hugely complex and contentious issue, but one that has been, and will continue to be, exceptionally impactful on all Central Oregonians. It will weigh heavily on long term population growth, local agriculture, recreation, and the health of fish and wildlife. Keep reading for more.
Kate Fitzpatrick, the Executive Director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, was recently interviewed for a podcast where she discussed our current drought and actions that the DRC has taken to work with irrigators to help alleviate it. As I told Kate directly, I believe that she is overselling the DRC’s accomplishments (very few COID patrons have offered to share their water with NUID, the Crooked River is essentially dewatered below the NUID diversion, Whychus Creek is still too hot to support a healthy ecosystem, etc.), but Kate is trying and she does a good job of laying out a vision for change. WARNING: this is an informative but wonky, water policy nerd sort of talk.
I’m not a resident of Bend, but watched the online “open house” on their integrated water system master plan. If you are interested in Bend’s water system and planning it’s worth a look. I’ve followed this topic for years and learned a few things. For example, due to water conservation, water use today is less than it was in 2008 despite Bend’s enormous growth. We need incentives for irrigators with senior water rights to similarly conserve.
The Bulletin recently covered the plight of some farmers with junior water rights getting only 40% of their traditional water deliveries while senior water rights holders continue to get their full allotment.
Beginning in the late 1800s settlers were lured by developers to Central Oregon with sometimes dubious promises of cheap land, good soil and weather, and plentiful water. Dreams of fertile farms helped bring the wagon trains. The first to arrive and organize were given the most senior water rights and every right after that was more junior. North Unit Irrigation District around Madras has the most productive farmland but the most junior rights. While they have been here the longest, fish and wildlife have the most junior water rights of all.
If you are a local water policy geek like I am, then it’s time to start hearing about the Deschutes Basin Water Collaborative, of which I am a member. The now complete Basin Study Work Group was a multi-year research project that dove deep into Basin water issues. The Collaborative is an even larger effort to implement some of the solutions that BSWG pointed to. DBWC has been around for a while now, but it’s moving slowly and still getting it’s footing. Some DBWC members presented to the Oregon House Committee On Water 2 weeks ago, and it’s worth watching (it’s the first 40 minutes). The speakers provided a reasonable overview of Basin water issues and collaborative efforts, but were careful to accentuate the positive. I fully acknowledge that some reaches of some rivers and streams are now in better shape than in the past, but the scale of the really fundamental work that needs to be done, at a much quicker pace than currently being discussed, was not addressed.
I’m sure you’re aware by now that most of Central Oregon is currently in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought. As an angler, I’m particularly concerned with flows in local waterways. Here’s a chart from the Oregon Water Resources Department that may be new to you. It shows current stream flows compared to the average. Flows in most of the state are more than 40% below average. Crook County is at 11%! According to the Bureau of Reclamation, reservoirs in Deschutes County are 42% full, which is 55% of the average. In other words, they are normally 76% full at this time of year. Reservoirs in Crook County are at 47% capacity, which is 54% of the average.
The Conservation Angler’s recent newsletter has some really good stuff in it, I suggest you check it out. One slightly off-topic comment: for my day job I have spent a fair amount of time pouring over research on Bitcoin and Blockchain. There is a link in TCA’s newsletter to an article that does a reasonable job of discussing Bitcoin’s environmental impact at a high level, but leaves out something that continues to stun me. Given the enormous computing power required to run the Blockchain and mine new coins, the preponderance of server farms dedicated to this task are located in China due to their cheap, coal-based electricity. The result is that Bitcoin is responsible for about 60 million tons of CO2 emissions annually, an amount that is increasing. It is projected that Bitcoin will soon emit more CO2 than Japan, currently the 5th largest emitter in the world.
By now, we should all be aware of our 20-year drought (I have many posts on this). While I have seen many graphical representations of it, this one in Kyle’s presentation was new to me. The blue bars show actual monthly precipitation over the past 20 years as measured at Wickiup Dam (not average as stated in the chart). The red line shows the cumulative departure from average. Over the past 20 years, Wickiup has seen almost 60 less inches than “average”. Kyle goes on to say in the presentation the cause is normal weather cycles, not global warming. Regardless of the reason, it has been dry over the past 20 years and we have had no changes in water policy or management in response.
For a couple of years I have been attending/viewing presentations put on by the Central Oregon Geoscience Society (COGS). I am not a geologist, but the talks have been educational and are occasionally about topics of particular interest to me like local hydrology and hydrogeomorphology. On April 27, Kyle Gorman, long time Central Oregon Region Manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department, gave a presentation titled, Water in the Deschutes Basin: 2020 Hindsight – What Happened? (Click on the title to see a replay.) Kyle discussed local hydrology and water use by irrigators. His presentation even had a couple of informative slides I had not seen before. (Check out the “CDA” graph at about minute 40.) It was a good overview of water issues many of us have been tracking for years, and I recommend viewing the replay of his talk, and perhaps joining COGS if you are interested in presentations like this.
I was surprised, however, by Kyle’s dismissal of global warming as a causal factor in current water shortages. Keep reading for comments on that.
Oregon and Washington have released 2021 return projections and associated angling regulation changes. The forecast is somewhat improved for some salmon species. Steelhead returns are again projected to be very low and angling restrictions will be put back in place. It is important to note that even the improved returns are still a fraction of what they should be.
Sadly, as I have written about many times, it is irrigation season and once again the Middle Deschutes below Bend is being killed. According to the US Bureau of Reclamation gauge, the Middle is currently flowing at 64 CFS. Prior to the installation of upstream dams and irrigation withdrawals, this section of river would be flowing around 1,200 CFS. Not only are the flows lethally low, they are erratic (see the chart below). The photo above is from a Central Oregon Irrigation District email last month that provided the irrigation startup schedule to their patrons. I was struck by their use of this image, as I will explain below.
Last week, Advocates for the West hosted a Zoom meeting featuring Idaho Conservation League’s Justin Hayes talking about US Congressman Simpson’s proposal to partially remove the four lower Snake River dams. I thought Justin did a great job diving into the proposal, answering questions, and I learned a lot. You can watch a replay of the meeting on Advocates’ YouTube channel. While informative, the discussion reinforced my concerns about the proposal’s automatic re-licensing of many other dams and a moratorium on related lawsuits in the Columbia Basin. Snake River salmon and steelhead desperately need these dams removed, but not at the potential cost of further endangering anadromous populations further downstream. This concern was acknowledged in the discussion but not adequately addressed in my opinion. Nevertheless, I encourage you to watch the video if you’d like to learn more about the proposal.
A frequent topic of this blog is the dismal state of Columbia Basin anadromous fish, including those in the Deschutes Basin. Among the most desperate are populations in the Snake River where dramatic action must be quickly taken to ensure their survival. The science is clear that without removing the lower four Snake River dams, some Snake River salmon and steelhead populations will soon become locally extinct (or “extirpated”, to use the more accurate term). A proposal has recently emerged to remove the dams, but as I previously wrote, it has some unacceptable provisions. While many conservation groups are ignoring the truly egregious components and rallying support for the plan, two days ago a coalition of other groups came out in opposition. Here’s a brief summary of the issue.
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.
Anglers in Central Oregon will lose an important ally when Brett Hogdson, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Deschutes District Fish Biologist, retires this Friday. You may not know Brett, but his dedication to local fisheries has made your life as an angler better. For many years, Brett managed fish in the Upper Deschutes Basin which includes all the waters that flow into the Metolius, Crooked, and Upper and Middle Deschutes Rivers and all lakes and reservoirs in the Basin.
As I wrote last December, an application for a private airstrip between Bend and Redmond right next to the Deschutes River in an Exclusive Farm Use Zone has been submitted to Deschutes County. Today, notice was given that the application was denied but is subject to appeal. I believe this is the correct decision. Private airstrips are fine, but not if they are next to a river where people recreate, eagles nest, and mule deer and elk use for winter habitat.
February was a good month for precipitation in Central Oregon. The Upper Deschutes and Crooked River basins are now at 94% of average snowpack, up from 79% last month. Central Oregon is now mostly in “severe” drought, as opposed to the previous “extreme” drought category. Nonetheless, very dry soil is soaking up most of the water, aquifers have a long way to go to be replenished, and reservoir levels statewide remain below normal for this time of year. Let’s hope we get a lot more cold weather and snow!
Snake River dam removal is currently getting a lot of attention. Here’s an old film featuring Ted Trueblood about steelhead fishing a “secret” place, which is pretty clearly Hells Canyon on the Snake. I was amused by the narration and line-in-mouth technique, but steelhead fishing used to be spectacular! Thanks to Aimee Moran, at Advocates for the West, for sharing. Advocates is an excellent organization, worthy of your support.
Crane Prairie Reservoir was built in 1922 as an irrigation reservoir; the water is held back by the first of many dams on the Deschutes River. Crane is a favorite for anglers in the Central Oregon Cascades targeting large, hard fighting “Cranebows”. These native rainbow trout are either wild, spawning in the Upper Deschutes above the reservoir, or hatchery-raised from originally wild stock. Only triploid (sterile) hatchery fish are now released into the reservoir, eliminating the potential for breeding with wild fish.
Over the weekend, US Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho released a “concept” for legislation to breach the 4 lower Snake River dams (Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite). Oregon Public Broadcasting has a good story on the proposal as well as related articles. Rep. Simpson understands that Snake River salmon and steelhead are on the path to extinction and he is to be commended for his efforts.
That being said, there is an element in the concept that will be a non-starter for most conservation / environmental groups: it suspends essentially all dam-related lawsuits in the entire Columbia Basin, not only the Snake River, for 35 years. Suspending legal challenges for such a long period of time over such an enormous area will simply be unacceptable for many.
That’s the title of the executive summary of a report released last month by the State of Washington. 30 years ago the first salmon in Washington was listed as endangered, many more have been added since then. Today, 14 species of salmon and steelhead are considered at risk of extinction (including those in the Snake River), and others are on the path. This is an excellent, brief, and easy to read report loaded with informative graphics. I encourage you to take a look. Of course, it begs the question, are things better in Oregon? Thanks to The Conversation Angler for alerting me to this report.
The Bend Bulletin has recently published two columns, one from an industry lobbyist and one from two local industry CEOs, arguing in favor of keeping the four lower Snake River dams. Statements in these columns are worthy of scrutiny and debate. One thing is certain, however, according to the best available science, many Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead are on the path to extinction in the not too distant future.
Winter is approximately 1/3 over, so there’s a lot of time for things to change, but I thought I’d comment on where things stand so far. The short answer is, not good. Central Oregon remains in moderate to extreme drought conditions, we need significantly more than normal snow, probably for multiple years, to get out of it, and so far we are below normal. If you want to dig in more, keep reading. There are many interesting infographics if you like this sort of thing.
A former colleague of mine back from my time in Silicon Valley who has also transitioned over to water world posted about a new board game called “California Water Crisis“. Follow the link, it looks pretty comprehensive and interesting. Perhaps we need a similar game for Central Oregon.
I was recently forwarded a link to an article published in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management with the wordy title, Rapid Recolonization and Life History Responses of Bull Trout Following Dam Removal in Washington’s Elwha River. We’ve all heard about how quickly various anadromous salmonids moved upriver after the removal of the Elwha Dam, this article said bull trout did likewise. Upon reflection, that’s not too surprising. What I had never heard before is that this is a population of anadromous bull trout who migrate in and out the the ocean and they are not unique in that regard. I guess I should have not been surprised by that, but I was. Learn something new all the time…
Today the Bend Bulletin ran an opinion piece titled “Removal of unproductive dams best for salmon” from an admitted lobbyist for the hydro power industry. While parts of the article were certainly true, it was a blatant attempt to “greenwash*” hydro power. Yes, ocean conditions are an important factor in anadromous fish declines, but so are dams. Yes, unproductive dams should be removed, but to state that the lower Snake River dams are an essential source of clean energy and not a significant contributor to the decline of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead is simply a fabrication.
A new 2,000 foot long airstrip adjacent to the Deschutes River between Bend and Redmond is being proposed. The application is for a private airstrip, but commercial use is allowed. Your favorite mapping program will show that 20925 Harper Road is nearly adjacent to the Maston trail system and the flight path will go over other houses. I’m all for property rights, but this is something else. Parts of Maston are seasonally closed to protect nesting eagles. Nearby Cline Buttes Recreation Area is winter range for deer and elk. Hikers, equestrians, and cyclists use these areas year round. It’s not the best fishing, but I’ve hiked down to the river there. Why do the desires of a single property owner supersede the needs of wildlife and the public’s tranquil use of this area?
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 report published yesterday in the journal Science identifies a toxic chemical in tires as a significant cause of death for salmon. A NY Times article provides some background on how this was discovered. Ever wonder what happens to all the ground down toxic bits of tire that comes off our cars? It is dispersed into the environment where we breath, eat, and drink it. We now know it also kills fish. Just another element in the chemical stew in which we live.
The Bend Bulletin has a short story about a man living in Culver who repeatedly poached bull trout, and bragged about it on social media, before being convicted of the crime. I am always struck when I read stories about poaching, but even more so when it’s an endangered species. I like to catch and eat fish, but this is something else altogether. What was going through the poacher’s mind?
I recently had an extended email exchange with someone who objected to my statements that irrigators do not pay for their water, they pay for the delivery of the water. This may be a subtle distinction, but in my mind it is important. It’s analogous to paying for the delivery of a bale of hay, but not the hay itself. I have had several irrigators insist that they do pay for their water, but this is simply not true. So, here’s a more detailed explanation and why I think this is important.
It’s not in Central Oregon, but the North Umpqua River is a favorite destination of mine. If the pass is clear it can even be a long day trip. Chasing winter steelhead in the fly water section is some of the toughest fishing I have ever done but it can be rewarding, and the river is beautiful. Of course, as is the case all over the state, steelhead returns continue to decline on the North Umpqua. On this river, however, those declines are partially due to the abysmal condition of the 130-year old, privately owned Winchester Dam. A new lawsuit asking the owners to remove the dam or undertake major repairs is another example of the excellent work being done by WaterWatch of Oregon. Learn more about the dam here.
If you want water in rivers and streams in Oregon, then WaterWatch of Oregon deserves your support. Without question, no one has been more effective in preserving and increasing flows, as well as preventing and removing dams, than WaterWatch. I have worked with them for over a decade on a variety of issues in Central Oregon (where they have been very effective) andask for your support of this worthy group. There will be an online auction October 19th – 25th and an hour long live auction October 24th from 5:00 – 6:00 pm. Short and sweet and certainly deserving of your consideration. Need more convincing? Visit their web site, but also be aware of something that is not listed: their lawsuit is why the Upper Deschutes now has flows of 100 CFS in the winter. That alone is worth at least a small donation.
The Willamette Falls fish ladder was turned on yesterday. Get more info and watch a video of fish passing through the ladder here. Get background info here. It feels good to report good news for a change, I wish there was more of it.
Here are a few things that might be of interest. I have not posted about steelhead returns this season, but as you can see above, total returns (hatchery + wild) to the Columbia River this year are above last year’s dismal numbers. This is clearly welcome news. Note that they remain well under the 10-year average and that average number has been consistently going down for some time. ODFW recently put out this press release on the status of hatcheries that were impacted by the recent and ongoing wildfires. It includes an interesting video, especially if you have never seen how fish are spawned in a hatchery. Finally, here’s a post I made a year ago on the positive impact wildfires can have on wild fish.
This morning I received an email titled “The big muddy” with the photo above and this text: “This is a photo of the Deschutes about 5 miles south of Sunriver at about 4:00 pm, September 15, 2020. I’m guessing that the emptying of Wickiup Reservoir has many years worth of sediments, accumulating at the bottom of the reservoir, now washing down stream.” Seems like a reasonable guess to me.
As expected, Wickiup Reservoir has been emptied, all that currently remains is the Deschutes River in it’s historical river bed. The Bend Bulletin had a good story about it in today’s paper. Clearly, this is terrible news for farmers who rely on this water. That being said, look at the charts below for some perspective.
I know that with all the fire devastation around us, ODFW hatcheries are low on the list of concerns, but this is a water and fish blog so I’m reporting that Marion Forks, Minto, Leaburg, McKenzie, Rock Creek and Klamath hatcheries have all been evacuated. Many fish at these hatcheries will be lost along with some buildings, although the extent of the damage is unknown at this time. Regardless of your opinion on hatcheries, this is going to be another huge hit to a dramatically underfunded ODFW budget which will impact all anglers. Still unconvinced that planet heating is upon us?
This appeared on Nextdoor this morning. No mention of wanting to grow anything, only a statement that they are going to use water just so they don’t lose their water right. This happens all the time. Laws and policies need to be changed to protect the Deschutes River.
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”.
Oregon native Dave Hughes is a fly fishing legend. He’s written over 25 books on entomology, fly tying, and fishing techniques. He’s also a noted conservationist. Dave is one of the few real experts in fly fishing. Most simply have a lot of experience and recycle knowledge gleaned from others. I put myself in that later category. I catch a lot of fish, and big fish, but it’s all due to learning from people like Dave and spending an inordinate amount of time on the water. So, I’m really looking forward to this online presentation on Wednesday, Aug. 19th, at 6 pm. Be sure to check out his YouTube fly tying videos as well. I’m not a tyer, but learn a lot about fly selection from watching tying videos. If someone has a well-kept copy of his book on the Deschutes for sale, please let me know.
I’m looking forward to this webinar tonight at 6 PM on dam removal. The author of this book will speak along with the leader of the successful effort to remove dams on the Rogue River here in Oregon. It should be interesting.
Tod Heisler has a great column in today’s Bend Bulletin titled, “The fallacy of in-conduit hydropower”. It’s worth reading, but the gist is that hydro power plants installed into piped canals encourages the continued overuse of water, even when it is not needed, in order to keep the power plant running. Of course, this maintains the irrigator’s legacy of keeping water levels in local rivers and streams below what is needed for a healthy ecosystem.
Two recent stories caught my eye. This article in The Guardian states that 23% of all water in the US is used to grow feed for cows and is a primary driver of water shortages. Hay is the primary crop in Deschutes and Crook counties. This NY Times article examines a problem we are all too familiar with: dwindling snowpack and the threat of a mega drought cycle. Both articles could have been written about Central Oregon.
Surface water (rivers & streams) in the Deschutes Basin has been fully allocated since the early 1900s, primarily to irrigators. To accommodate for continued growth, groundwater pumping became the primary source of new water supplies. In the 1990s studies showed that this pumping was impacting surface water. In the Deschutes Basin, snowmelt in the Cascades seeps through porous volcanic rock, slowly replenishing the aquifer. As the aquifer overfills it releases the water via springs, which create our local lakes and rivers. Variability in snowpack and pumping impacts the aquifer and therefore stream flow.
Yesterday, Karen and I took our canoe out to Little Cultus Lake along the Cascade Lakes Highway for a late afternoon, escape-the-heat excursion. Given the drought and heat wave I was not too surprised to see algae starting to form, but it was disappointing. As anyone who has lived in Central Oregon for any amount of time knows, algae blooms are occurring more frequently. This excursion reminded me that in April I was given this report on algae in Odell Lake and am way overdue for a post about it.
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 »
For years, ODFW has been working on chub control in a number of local lakes, mostly via netting and removal. The pandemic has created a budget issue along with a health issue and there will be no netting this year on East or Paulina Lakes. Control efforts have been successful and the chubs are less abundant than in the past, so this should not have too much impact on this summer’s fishing.
Another beautiful day on the river which made me think of the quote below. (BTW, I was following the rules: little travel, no parking in a parking lot or at a trailhead, there was no trail, and I only saw a couple of other adventurers all day. It is still possible to do this in Central Oregon.)
“I fish because I love to. Because I love the environs where trout are found, which are invariably beautiful, and hate the environs where crowds of people are fond, which are invariably ugly. Because of all the television commercials, cocktail parties and assorted social posturing I thus escape. Because in a world where most men seem to spend their lives doing what they hate, my fishing is at once an endless source of delight and an act of small rebellion. Because trout do not lie or cheat and cannot be bought or bribed, or impressed by power, but respond only to quietude and humility, and endless patience. Because I suspect that men are going along this way for the last time and I for one don’t want to waste the trip. Because mercifully there are no telephones on trout waters. Because only in the woods can I find solitude without loneliness. Because bourbon out of an old tin cup always tastes better out there. Because maybe one day I will catch a mermaid. And finally, not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important, but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant and not nearly so much fun.”
– Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Voelker
The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife is currently working on their budget for the 2021-2023 biennium and taking public comment until May 1. You can learn more here. ODFW is the only state agency that solicits direct public feedback on their budget. In the past they have done this through their External Budget Advisory Committee (I am a member) as well as at town hall meetings throughout the state. Given the current pandemic, they are soliciting feedback electronically. There’s lot of information on their website, below are my observations and comments from the perspective of an angler in Central Oregon. I encourage you to familiarize yourself with the materials and submit your own comments.Read More »
If you are a trout angler, you have likely seen the impact cows have on rivers and streams by damaging banks, trampling riparian areas, and otherwise degrading habitat. You might not be aware that they are also the primary reason for low river flows in the West. “Water scarcity and fish imperilment driven by beef production“, published in Nature last month, describes exactly what we are seeing in the upper and middle Deschutes River. (Thanks to George Wuerthner for sending me this article.)Read More »
Need something other than COVID-19 news? Today the Bulletin ran a story that gave a brief overview of some of the issues facing the upper Deschutes River (above Bend). I am thankful that the new ownership of the paper is providing more balanced coverage of local environmental stories.
David Moskowitz, Executive Director of The Conservation Anger, emailed me with a few comments on my post about the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife’s plans for creating cold water refugia for steelhead in the Columbia River. I have been thinking about this more as well, so here are some things to consider. I really hope you take the time to look at ODFW’s web page on this topic and submit your comments via email.Read More »
Yesterday ODFW held an online public meeting to discuss potential plans for creating cold water refugia for steelhead in the Columbia River. From my perspective, this is a simple decision. With a heating planet and plunging steelhead populations in the Columbia Basin, of course there should be cold water areas set aside where fishing is restricted. If anything, it seems we should err on the side of making the refugia areas larger and closures longer. This is not a universally held opinion, however.Read More »
February was one of the driest months on record for Oregon and the effects can really be seen in our rivers. Here is a graph from the USGS site showing current levels. I have regularly looked at this site for many years and never seen so much red. Even the Deschutes is below the 10th percentile of normal flows! Our local snowpack is now 82% of normal and Central Oregon is currently classified as being in a moderate drought. None of this is good news for fish.
Today I returned from a fishing trip to Cuba put together by Flywater Travel. This trip did not live up to my hopes but the Zapata peninsula certainly has the potential to be a premier fly fishing destination. It is a huge area of flats, channels, mangrove forests, and small islands. There are abundant bonefish, baby tarpon, some permit, and many other species including barracuda, jacks, snapper, snook, etc. In the right conditions, at the right time of year, I am certain the fishing could be excellent. The accommodations, food, and staff were pleasant and professional. 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 »
Central Oregon Irrigation District is asking for another round of taxpayer funding to pipe a small section of their 400+ miles of canals. This time the request is for $42M to pipe 7.9 miles of canal. Yesterday Central Oregon Land Watch posted their analysis of this proposal. Per COLW, $42M equates to “$568,000 per irrigator”. I wish I got this sort of taxpayer subsidy. The Basin Study Work Group clearly showed ways to save the same amount of water for 25% of the cost of main canal piping. WaterWatch has pointed out that there are no guarantees in this latest piping proposal that any conserved water be permanently returned to the upper Deschutes. And, as always, there is no mention of increasing flows in the middle Deschutes during irrigation season. The song remains the same…
I am a member of the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Restoration & Enhancement Board. A small portion of every commercial and recreational fishing license is set aside to spend on projects approved by the R&E board. This volunteer position has been a wonderful experience and a great way to help direct projects in ways I believe will benefit anglers all over the state. Our meeting last week was in Salem where we had the opportunity to speak with top leadership and get an overview of ODFW’s strategic plan. I know that ODFW has a mixed reputation but I believe they are doing a good job given available resources, their broad mandate, and mixed constituencies. I was also encouraged by the vision they laid out for the future.Read More »
…from Los Barriles, Baja California Sur, Mexico. My first fish of the new decade. The dorado is tonight’s dinner, the skipjack was released to live another day. I’d rather be steelhead fishing but this is not a bad replacement. Pretty fun on a 10wt rod.
The Association of NW Steelheaders has an article in their December newsletter stating that Willamette River steelhead have significantly increased in numbers since ODFW “removed” (killed) 33 California sea lions that were living in and near the Willamette Falls fish ladder. The sea lions were eating about 25% of the total adult steelhead run, now down to an estimated 9%. While steelhead populations continue to be under serious pressure, California sea lion populations are robust, perhaps at all time highs.
Here’s an editorial from 1959, written by the editor of The Bulletin, discussing why a new irrigation dam should not be built on the upper Deschutes at Benham Falls. The arguments about water for agriculture versus other uses have not changed in 60 years. Mr. Chandler states that ag wastes too much water and is not as valuable as other economic uses. Same as it ever was.
I am a member of the ODFW Restoration & Enhancement Board. Most anglers don’t know this, but a small portion of every license is set aside to be spent by the R&E board on projects that benefit anglers. We help fund docks, ramps, habitat restoration projects, dam removal, invasive species control, etc. This short video from Central Oregon Daily features yours truly.
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.
The September issue of The Osprey is out. I’ve written about this publication in the past. It is an excellent, if technical, source of articles on the status of steelhead and salmon in the Pacific NW. This issue is the usual mix of mostly bad but some good news, including the dramatic improvements in the Rogue River after removal of a number of dams (thank you WaterWatch). I encourage you to take a look and donate to this cash-strapped publication.
The four dams on the Snake River are not in Central Oregon, but they have an enormous impact on Columbia River Basin (which incudes the Deschutes Basin) steelhead and salmon. These iconic populations are currently on the path to extinction. Recently, two tribes joined the chorus of voices calling for the removal of the dams. Last week 55 scientists released a letter that did likewise. Also last week, E&E News published another article detailing how these dams no longer make economic sense – hydro power is no longer cheap when compared to alternatives – and it would actually be cheaper to remove them than continue their operation. I would love to see the same analysis of the PGE/CTWS dams on the Deschutes River.
I have been a frequent critic of the US Fish & Wildlife Service over the past few years, and will continue to be if the HCP is not improved, but they did something good this past week. As I posted here, the Bureau of Reclamation had planned to stop all flows out of Crane Prairie Reservoir in the upper Deschutes on October 30, draining it dry down to Wickiup Reservoir. USFWS got them to keep a flow of 20 cfs to provide some minimal protection for endangered species. This will also protect fish like the one in the photo above that was caught in that reach. Of course, this begs the question, why did the BoR plan to drain it dry in the first place?
The Bureau of Reclamation plans to stop all water flowing out of Crane Prairie Reservoir for up to 8 hours later this month, tentatively on October 30th, de-watering the Deschutes River for about 1.5 miles down to Wickiup Reservoir. This is to perform an inspection of the dam. It will also kill a section of the river that is important for spawning and holds some nice fish. See the photo above of my friend Jake with a nice brown trout from this stretch.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.
Today the Bend Bulletin printed a response to my recent letter from Kurt Miller, the Executive Director of Northwest RiverPartners, a group that lobbies for hydroelectric facilities on the Columbia River. Predictably, Mr. Miller takes issue with my inclusion of hydro power dams in the list of reasons that anadromous fish populations are collapsing in the Columbia River Basin.Read More »
Yesterday, the Bend Bulletin printed a guest column I wrote on the grim outlook for steelhead and salmon in the Columbia Basin (including the Deschutes River). Above is a graphic that illustrates the problem. Here’s a NY Times article on the same topic. Whether some of these fish have 10 years left as I have read in some places, or 20 as reported in the NY Times, it is not a hopeful picture.
George Wuerthner is one of the most interesting ecologists and activists I have met, and certainly the most prolific writer. He has written dozens of books and many more articles on wildfire, predators, and the environmental impact of ranching, along with water and fishery issues. His views are often controversial, especially regarding fire, but compelling when carefully considered. In short, George believes that forest thinning does not help catastrophic wildfire control. He argues we should focus on creating fire resistant buildings, establishing defensible borders, and leaving forests alone. The explanation for this is beyond the scope of this post, but here’s a video he sent me on the beneficial nature of fire in stream and river systems. It’s worth a quick view.
Oregon Public Broadcasting reported yesterday that another warm water “blob” is forming off the Pacific Coast. This blob is likely to be as large as the last one which collapsed much of the food web that many cold water marine species rely on. “Scientists expect the heat wave to hurt salmon populations and the fisheries that depend on them.” Of course, chinook salmon and steelhead have not recovered from the last blob and returns this year in the Columbia basin (including the Deschutes) are at perilously low levels.
While the operation of the hydro power dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers is not directly a Central Oregon issue, it certainly impacts us as anglers. Below is a good overview of something I’m sure you have heard about before, upper Columbia basin salmon (and steelhead) are on the path to extinction. Lesser known is that the Bonneville Power Administration is going broke.Read More »
Irrigation season in Central Oregon continues into mid October, but the picture is already an interesting one. As this graph makes obvious, many local “lakes” are actually irrigation reservoirs and local rivers are used as irrigation canals. What is also obvious is the difference between water levels in Wickiup and other reservoirs.Read More »
I am a member of the ODFW Restoration & Enhancement Board. You may not be aware of this, but a portion of every fishing license is directed to the R&E board where we decide how to spend it. About half the funds are earmarked for the repair of ODFW fish hatcheries and the rest toward improving fishing opportunities. This could be anything from boat ramps and docks, to dam removal, to habitat projects, to invasive species removal, some basic science, etc. It’s a very interesting board to sit on with some great tours of projects all over the state. Our next meeting is in Bend on September 6th with a tour on September 5th. Both are open to the public.
The ODFW Commission oversees the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife and sets policies and regulations. A majority of the Commission is new this year and for the first time in decades a Central Oregon resident is a member. I had the pleasure to spend an hour with Mark Labhart yesterday and found him to be quite informed about statewide fishing. Mark has an impressive background in public service, recently relocated from Tillamook to Sisters, and is eager to dive in to learn local issues. I’m looking forward to working with and learning from him.
David Moskowitz of The Conservation Angler sent me this report on current run counts. It’s only two pages and worth reading. As of August 15, the numbers are even worse than the very low pre-season forecast. Only 40,080 total steelhead (wild and hatchery) passed through Bonneville Dam from July 1 through August 15. That’s 27.1% of the past 10 year average. It’s important to note that the 10 year average is low to begin with as the past 10 years have seen declining runs. It’s only 19.4% of the best ten year average since counts started. As I wrote here, we anglers have to question targeting these fish at all given the path to extinction they could be on.
David Moskowitz, the Executive Director of The Conservation Angler, is a frequent but welcome critic of my work. Today we spoke about my post yesterday stating that fishing for steelhead is now a moral issue. He was largely in agreement and wanted me to be aware that the closure was in response to public testimony he made at the August 2nd ODFW Commission meeting. You can see his testimony here (go to 1:40 in the video). It does seem that this was not an issue being considered prior to Dave’s testimony. It’s an interesting interaction and I am happy to give credit where it is due. Dave agreed that summer steelhead on the Rogue seem to be doing fine but wanted to point out that summer steelhead on the Umpqua are not. He is absolutely correct on that point. I only fish the winter run which is doing fine but was not clear about that in my prior post.
ODFW has closed the bottom 3/4 mile of the Deschutes River to all fishing starting today through September 15. “The closure is to protect wild summer steelhead and follows several other regulatory steps ODFW and WDFW have taken to protect wild steelhead this year. Returns of ESA-listed wild Snake River steelhead this year are forecasted to be similar to the extremely poor return of 2017, and there are ongoing concerns about the potential effects of angling on wild steelhead that may gather in cooler water near tributary mouths like the Deschutes.”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 »
That’s the title of an article that came out earlier this month. It’s well written and worth a read. It mirrors some of the themes I have been visiting for some time now. Less snow pack combined with heating will lead to water insecurity in Oregon for which we are not ready or planning. At the same time, demand is growing along with our population. We continue to waste water and don’t even really know who is using it or how much of it. Agriculture remains the primary culprit in this, most users have no conservation plans and do not report usage while using over 85% of all water. To add insult to injury, agricultural interests routinely challenge any attempt to restore flows in rivers. At least we could charge them for use of our water (all water is owned by the public). That would solve the inefficiency problem very quickly.
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 »
For years I have argued that Central Oregon water rights currently favor less productive lands, leave the most economically viable farmlands at risk, and should be redistributed in a way that offers the most societal value. There are ways to do this that would not leave current rights holders “high and dry”. I have also argued that the beneficial use standard must be clearly defined, simply spreading water on the ground so that it is green should not qualify. So, I was pleasantly surprised to see the guest column in the Bend Bulletin this morning from a farmer in Madras making essentially the same arguments.Read More »
Water in Central Oregon is a critical issue for people, fish and wildlife, our recreation and tourism industry, farming, etc. To their credit, the Bend Bulletin frequently publishes opinion pieces on this topic from a variety of individuals, including myself. My submissions are thoroughly fact checked and I often have to provide supporting materials for statements I make. I wish the same journalistic principles had been applied to an opinion piece titled “Collaboration on water is harder than picking a fight”, published on June 7th.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 »
That’s the title of a short article in The Atlantic magazine. It’s a short read. Among other things, chemicals are disrupting salmon migrations. Of course, this impacts humans as well. Here’s an excerpt:
Waterways can contain traces of many drugs—among them antifungals, antimicrobials, and antibacterials, as well as ones for pain, fertility, mood, sleeplessness, and neurodegenerative diseases. If current trends persist, scientists estimate, the volume of pharmaceuticals diffusing into fresh water could increase by two-thirds by 2050.