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.
Portland General Electric provided the final reintroduction counts for the 2020-2021 steelhead season last Friday* and once again they were extremely disappointing: a total of 52 steelhead. These are fish from the Upper Deschutes Basin that were captured as out migrating smolts 2 years ago at the Selective Water Withdrawal tower in Lake Billy Chinook, potentially marked and released into the Lower Deschutes River, and which subsequently returned as adults. Last year 57 adults returned. It is almost important to know that the number of all steelhead (wild, hatchery, and reintroduced) captured at the Pelton Trap was very low (1,309).
Once again, I make the case that this is not an issue specifically with the Deschutes River, it is a result of many factors that have led to massive declines in anadromous fish populations throughout the Pacific Northwest. These include global warming which is destroying the food chain in the ocean as well as lowering and warming rivers, dams which remove habitat and impede migration, over fishing, pollution, cross-breeding and competition with hatchery fish, etc. Without large scale reform, wild steelhead in much of the Columbia Basin and beyond are on the path to extinction and hatchery fish could follow.
For those of you who track the reintroduction closely, keep reading.
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.
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
This year’s workshop is being held online on July 23rd. Before COVID these workshops were 1.5 days and filled with great information. I have been going for years and always learn from them. This year will be much shorter but still the place to get the latest info on anadromous fish reintroduction efforts. See the agenda and sign up here.
For what it’s worth, here’s the email I sent to ODFW yesterday:
I oppose providing a fish passage waiver for the proposed hydroelectric plant at the base of Bowman Dam. While the cost of installing a ladder may be prohibitive, the proposed mitigation measures do not come close to providing a greater benefit to fish than opening up 500 miles of habitat and reconnecting fish in the upper Crooked River with fish in the lower Crooked River as well as other upper Deschutes Basin waterways. Further, a 50-year FERC license would preclude passage for the same amount of time.Read More »
Bowman Dam was completed by the US Bureau of Reclamation (BoR) in 1961, damming the Crooked River and creating Prineville reservoir. It was built to protect development downstream from flooding, including the City of Prineville, and to provide water for Ochoco Irrigation District (OID) who operates the dam. While these are worthy goals, Bowman Dam has also caused significant environmental damage. OID, Prineville, and Crook County would now like to add a small hydroelectric facility to the base of Bowman Dam and are asking for a waiver to the State of Oregon requirement that fish passage be provided at dams undergoing significant changes. This is a complex issue, below are my thoughts. The waiver application, supporting documents, and analysis by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife can be found here. Public comment on the waiver application is being accepted until June 22nd.Read More »
The fish ladder at Opal Springs has proven remarkably successful. Since it became operational late November through the end of April, thousands of fish from a variety of species have been filmed and identified as moving through it. Suckers and whitefish have moved up from Lake Billy Chinook for spawning. Rainbow, brown, and bull trout have traveled upriver most likely foraging for food. While the primary motivation for installing the fish ladder was to facilitate the reintroduction of salmon and steelhead, the ladder has also provided much needed connectivity between the Crooked, Metolius, and Middle Deschutes rivers. An improved ecosystem will be the result. Below is the breakdown by species.Read More »
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 »
Believe it or not, if you look at the individual fish count numbers on the PGE website for past years, summer steelhead season in the upper most stretches of the Deschutes extends to the end of April. Some of these fish really take their time to get to their final destination. So, while the return season is not over, we are getting close. As of March 6th, 53 steelhead have been passed above the dams into Lake Billy Chinook. 47 of those were recently counted via radio tags, 22 in the Crooked River, and 3 in the Crooked arm of Lake Billy Chinook, presumably getting ready to head up the river. This once again shows the importance of the fish ladder at Opal Springs.
Thus far, 19 steelhead have swam from Lake Billy Chinook up the Opal Springs fish ladder into Lake Billy Chinook. Historically, the greatest number of steelhead arrive at the Pelton Fish trap in January and February, so I certainly hope the numbers get even better. Along with the steelhead, 90 rainbow, 53 whitefish, 10 brown trout, and one bull trout have been detected in the ladder, mostly moving upstream. Connecting the Crooked River to the Deschutes and Metolius rivers is excellent news for these fish species as well. So far, so good!
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 »
The fish ladder at the Opal Springs Hydroelectric Project at the mouth of the Crooked River is nearing completion. Scheduled to go online this fall, volitional passage could be a huge shot in the arm for reintroduction efforts as the overwhelming majority of adult steelhead and chinook passed into Lake Billy Chinook try to go up the Crooked. The Crooked River Watershed Council has released this video about the passage project which is worth viewing.Read More »
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 »
After 10 years of effort it is clear that the current approach to reintroducing anadromous fish into the upper Deschutes Basin above the Pelton Round Butte project is not producing acceptable results. Fisheries managers acknowledge this but often state that it will take more time. They reply that it has been over 50 years since these fish were cut off from their traditional spawning grounds and reintroduction is a complex problem. This is true, but I believe the current dire state of steelhead returns to the Deschutes River should provide impetus to take bolder action. This is a long post, but worth reading if you care about the future of steelhead in the Deschutes River.Read More »
(I stole the photo of Camp Polk Meadow Preserve and Whychus Creek from the Deschutes Land Trust website. Photo credit: Russ McMillan.)
When the reintroduction effort began a major focus was the restoration of Whychus Creek, a tributary of the middle Deschutes. The thought was that steelhead in particular would target Whychus as they are not native to the Metolius and the Crooked River is blocked by Opal Springs Dam. Restoring Whychus Creek would also provide dramatically improved habitat for wild, native species, in particular redband trout. This restoration effort was spearheaded by the Deschutes Partnership who purchased sections of the creek for restoration, worked on restoring flows, and performed habitat improvement, along with state and federal agencies. It was and continues to be a long-term, expensive effort. Some progress has been made but there’s still a long way to go.Read More »
Last week was the annual Pelton Round Butte Fisheries Workshop. Once again, it was an information filled conference with presentations covering a wide range of fisheries issues encompassing the entire Deschutes Basin. I am going to spend a few weeks digging into some of the presentations, I have many follow up questions for some of the presenters, but there were a few topics that are quick and easy to report on, like Opal Springs fish passage.Read More »
This afternoon I was able to tour the Deschutes Land Trust’s new Ochoco Preserve. The preserve is currently farmland just outside Prineville that will be converted to wetlands over the next decade or so. It is where McKay and Ochoco Creeks meet the Crooked River. The potential for new, high quality habitat for native redband trout is very exciting. These creeks were also important spawning areas for anadromous Chinook salmon and steelhead and may be again once the fish ladder at Opal Springs Dam is complete. I encourage you to visit the DLT’s site, learn more, and become a member if you are able.
The Deschutes River 2017/2018 summer steelhead season still has a few weeks left but returns have been bleak. As of the end of January 2018 only 13 upper basin origin steelhead have been captured in the Pelton trap a little upstream from the Warm Springs Bridge, and none in December. This will likely be the lowest return year since upper basin returns began in 2011.Read More »
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 »