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.
Wildfire management is not my area of expertise, but it is certainly a hot topic in Central Oregon and one connected to water and watersheds. One of the dominate narratives today is that we need to more actively “manage” our forests while the environmental / scientific community states this is misguided for a range of reasons. “First the savior, now the villain: Fire suppression is often overhyped in the American west“, was published today and is another argument that managing forests for fire suppression is more detrimental than beneficial. The line that caught my eye was, “According to tree-ring-based climate reconstructions, this was the wettest century of the past 2,000 years in much of the West.” What does this mean for our local ecosystems? If normal means drier, and global heating adds to that, what does that mean for us? Perhaps, rather than wildfire management, we should be focusing on water management.
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 few years ago, I was asked to give a presentation on local water issues where I focused on climate change, drought, our dwindling snowpack, and its enormous repercussions on ecosystems, municipal water supplies, and agriculture. I was surprised by the fact that so many in the audience, even those deep in “water world”, had not made the connection between snowpack and local water issues*. There seemed to be a view that we have this enormous aquifer that will provide for us without understanding that a deep snowpack is the source of that aquifer. Today, I read a review of a scientific article on the subject that should scare all of us.
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.
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.
I am thankful of the Bend Bulletin’s continuing coverage of local water issues. Unfortunately, the article in yesterday’s paper, Districts make last-ditch effort to conserve water for Deschutes River, was somewhat misleading. While it is true that plans call for over $100M to be spent to install canal piping, those are almost exclusively federal taxpayer funds, not irrigator funds. That should have been highlighted at the beginning of the article, not buried at the end.
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.
Local ecologist and wildfire expert George Wuerthner alerted me to a new report publish by the American Geophysical Union with the unwieldy title “Projected Changes in Reference Evapotranspiration in California and Nevada: Implications for Drought and Wildland Fire Danger“. While Central Oregon is not specifically covered, it is obvious from the report that it applies to us as well. The bottom line is that global warming is going to increase and strengthen the extended state of drought we have been experiencing as well as increase and strengthen local wildfire danger. George asks how will this impact the HCP and our management of local rivers? What breaks when there is not enough water to meet all the defined needs?
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.
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?
As reported by The Bulletin on August 28th, Lone Pine Irrigation District is the latest local district to run out of water to deliver to their patrons. This is terrible news, no one wants to see farmers losing their livelihoods. Water is a complicated topic in Central Oregon with many factors contributing to the shortage. Unfortunately, rather than addressing the real issues, Terry Smith, chairman of the board for LPID, places the blame on the Endangered Species Act.
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”.
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.
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.
You have to watch this three-part PBS special on water. In 10 years the world will need 40% more fresh water than will be available. The themes are global, but they apply to Oregon as well. The global fresh water crisis is real, is already impacting the US, and will be strongly felt in Central Oregon sooner than any of us want to acknowledge. Locally, we dramatically mismanage our water and have not updated policies that are over 100 years old. But, what’s the worry? Someone will fix it, right? Can I get another beer?
Thanks to Brett Hodgson for informing me about this show.
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 »
Swalley Irrigation District and the Deschutes River Conservancy recently announced the completion of piping a 3 mile stretch of canal which will restore about 1.8 cubic feet a second (CFS) of flow to the Middle Deschutes during peak irrigation season. 1.8 CFS is about 13.5 gallons. Picture 5-gallon buckets, two full and one 2/3rds-full. Put them on their side and that’s the size of the stream they would create. Restoring water to the river is always good news, but this announcement is a great example of the complexity of the issue.Read More »
I have been writing for years about the water crisis that is looming in Central Oregon. Global heating, booming growth, and antiquated water policy is already impacting fish and wildlife. The persistence of shortages for agriculture are now becoming apparent to even the most fervent deniers. Municipal shortages are clearly on the horizon. I am heartened that the new ownership of The Bulletin is tackling this issue. Today they had two good articles on the topic. “How climate has changed farming the the Northwest” is a reasonable overview of the impacts of smaller snow pack, a topic I frequent. Missing from the article is a discussion of the impact of over pumping groundwater and lack of recharge which is equally concerning. They also ran a story about water rights marketing in Washington in the print edition, but failed to put it online (I found it here). This is exactly the approach that the Basin Study Work Group said would be a cheaper, faster way than piping to return water to the Deschutes River. If it can work in Washington, why not here in Central Oregon?
Today the Bulletin ran a guest column, “$1 billion is too much to give irrigation districts in these times“, by Tod Heisler of Central Oregon Land Watch. Clearly, I agree with Tod that the current plan is the wrong one. My first letter to The Bulletin criticizing water and canal management by local irrigation districts was over 10 years ago. Hopefully we can get past identifying the problem and finding real solutions to our local water issues before lack of adequate funding, a growing population, and a heating planet create a full-blown crisis. Of course, it already is a crisis for local fish and wildlife.
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 »
Next week the City Club of Central Oregon will host a discussion on the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan. Initially billed as a debate between Tod Heisler of Central Oregon Land Watch and a representative from the irrigation districts it now features Bridget Moran of the US Fish & Wildlife Service standing in for the irrigators. I guess none of them wanted to stand up for their own plan. I’m not sure what this debate will be about now. What I do know is that this discussion will be fundamentally unsatisfying regardless of who is on the stage.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 »
Here’s a story form NOAA Fisheries discussing increased whale entanglements in nets on the West Coast due to a warming Pacific. The meat of the story is that “warm temperatures attracted subtropical species rarely seen in the region. The krill that humpback whales typically feed on grew scarce. The whales switched to feed instead on high concentrations of anchovy that the warm, less productive waters had squeezed into a narrow band near the coast”. This has lead to a record number of entanglements.
The Bulletin ran a story last week on the local snow pack which reminded me that I had not posted on this topic since last spring. The winter is a little less than half over and so far the snow pack looks pretty good, but all is not well. Weather is not climate, Oregon remains drier than normal, groundwater levels are going down, and we continue to allocate water based on 100 year old water laws which were written in a very different environment. Keeping reading for more.Read More »
Global warming is one of the topics I occasionally cover for the simple fact that it is impacting anglers in Central Oregon. Our rivers and ocean are heating, fish are being impacted, and fishing closures due to heating are becoming more frequent. The impacts on anadromous fish (salmon, steelhead) are the most dramatic, but they are only the canaries in the coal mine. While our government continues to ignore this critical issue there is a growing awareness in many parts of the business community that action must be taken, and soon.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 »
A rare but welcome bit of good news is the hot water “Blob” off the Pacific NW coast has shrunk in size and moved off shore. “Low salmon returns to many West Coast rivers in the last few years have been linked to the Blob, which reduced the availability of food when the salmon first entered the ocean as juveniles.” The Blog is still huge, however. “The question is, where does it go from here?”
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 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.
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
Immediately after making my River & Drought Outlook post on Monday I contacted the Bend Bulletin and told them that “there has to be a story in there for you”. Today they did publish a story about the rapidly diminishing snowpack but, not surprisingly, completely omitted any mention of impacts on fish & wildlife or water recreation. The story was all about what it means for local business, irrigation districts, and fires. It’s no wonder that the paper is bankrupt (again), they just don’t seem to understand the mindset of the rapidly changing local population. We have have a lifestyle economy, people want to recreate outdoors, and healthy rivers and lakes are a key element of that.
Headwaters of the Deschutes at Little Lava Lake on 5/12/19. A dry river.
Without a doubt, current water conditions are dramatically improved from the beginning of the year. All is not well, however, and work to conserve water and improve river flows should remain at the forefront of every angler’s agenda if we hope to continue to enjoy our sport at a high level. As of yesterday, Little Lava Lake is very low, is not spilling into the upper Deschutes, and there is essentially no snow to be seen in that area.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 Bend Bulletin published an opinion piece I wrote after they previously rejected a more pointed version. I was not surprised by the rejection, as that version pointed out that the success of irrigation districts as a special interest group comes from extensive contributions to politicians, which is not the sort of thing that The Bulletin wants to touch. Thankfully, they did publish my softened column as well as this excellent letter yesterday from George Wuerthner which also addresses local water issues.
Today the Bulletin ran a story echoing what I have been writing about for some time, there will be water shortages this summer for some irrigation districts. Unfortunately, the wrong ones in my opinion. North Unit Irrigation District supplies real farmers around Madras who are going to have to fallow some lands. Central Oregon Irrigation District has senior water rights but primarily supplies hobby farmers and will see no shortages. This is just wrong.
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 »
On March 19 the Bulletin ran a front-page story about Senator Merkely helping local irrigation districts “re-plumb” Central Oregon. Piping local irrigation canals is needed and on the surface this is excellent news. The devil is always in the details, however. Read More »
I have spent the past 4 days battling the flu (and losing so far) so I could not make it to the Ways & Means hearing in Redmond yesterday. I was able to get off the couch this afternoon to submit the written comments below. You can as well using this email address: email@example.com. As someone who serves on a state board where public comments are submitted I can tell you they make a difference. Don’t assume someone else will do it for you.Read More »
Here’s the latest Oregon snow pack data. Obviously, this is extremely good news and a big turnaround from only a couple of weeks ago. A large snow pack combined with a cool spring will allow for a long, slow release of melt water into our aquifers, rivers, and lakes. This was highly unexpected but more than welcome news. Now let’s hope for a cool spring.Read More »
I have written about global warming’s impact on the ocean off the coast of Oregon as well as on local steelhead and salmon populations. To put it mildly, warming, acidification, and oxygen deficiency have not been beneficial. At the same time, some far northern locations, close to the arctic, have seen record runs of some species. Bristol Bay is a good example. Here’s a report in the journal Science which helps quantify all this. The bottom line is that ocean fish populations are clearly declining overall due to global warming.
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 »
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
This wonderful quote pretty much sums up why I am a committed fisheries and water activist. (I certainly don’t have a first-rate intelligence, but do believe that things look hopeless while nevertheless trying to do my part to make them otherwise.) I found this quote in the latest issue of Sierra Magazine which is dedicated to climate change. Of course, it paints a bleak picture if we don’t take serious action now.Read More »
350Deschutes is sponsoring a talk on global warming and local impacts. It will be held at Worthy Brewing next Thursday, January 24th, at 7 pm. You can sign up here. I will cover water and fish, here’s my presentation. Follow the sign up link to see other presenters. Come have a beer and ask questions.
Today the Bend Bulletin ran a story on climate change’s impact to local rivers and I was one of the people quoted. I am always frustrated with the experience of spending time discussing an issue in depth and seeing cursory coverage as a result. I respect work the reporter does for the paper and understand that space is limited but there is so much more to say. Oh well. The good news is the article does capture the big picture and hopefully adds to the general awareness of global warming’s current local impact, not sometime in the future. That being said, I do have one quibble with the story.Read More »
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 »
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 »