Save the Upper Deschutes

Nov 24, 2015

Sisters Nugget

Save the Upper Deschutes By Jeff Perin

One of my favorite rivers is very broken.

Once considered a blue-ribbon trout river, the Upper Deschutes from Wickiup Reservoir down to Bend is now abused. The river is treated like an irrigation ditch.

It is no longer the special place it once was.

Growing up as a Portland kid, I first fished the Upper Deschutes when I moved to Bend in the summer of 1980. At the age of 11, I was just getting my fishing game together. That evening on the river was a life-changing event.

Later, as a grown-up (as much a fishing guide can call themselves a grown-up) I've rowed my drift boat down that part of the river for numerous clients and good friends, and we used to experience epic hatches and excellent fishing.

The sad exclamation point to the problem came when the compounding conditions really caught up with us back in 2013. This is not simply a drought issue, this is largely a water mismanagement issue that has gone on for decades!

In 2013, on my last drift for the season on the Upper Deschutes, the river flowed at 1,500 cfs. That was in mid-September. Two weeks later, water releases from the dam were tapered all the way down to a devastating 20 cfs for the rest of the winter. Back-to-back Artic blasts in November and December froze the river from bank to bank. In some areas ice was solid to the bottom of the riverbed.

Trout and ESA-listed spotted frogs died in unprecedented numbers.

It was the worst blow to a river I'd ever witnessed.

When you go upstream towards Wickiup Dam and look at nearly 20 miles of river up there ... that is when you'll see the Deschutes at it's worst. Really, if you saw how the river looked today you would be appalled.

When the Deschutes was at it's best, before the dams were built at Crane Prairie and Wickiup, the river ran a consistent flow of about 700 cfs. At one time, fish were so abundant there was a 125-fish limit upstream of Bend.

Now, in the summer, when the irrigation water is being delivered toward Bend the river channel is up to 10 feet deep and runs 2,000 cfs - three times natural flow.

With the canals turned off for winter, the river channel can be measured in inches.

This leaves a serious issue with silting, and an even more serious issue of habitat loss. Habitat for trout is key. Habitat for ESA-listed spotted frogs is now critical. Habitat for aquatic insects is largely lost at this point.

We are just beginning to see some cooperation with agriculture, golf, and development, but we have a long way to go to bring the Deschutes back from the brink. We need a tighter relationship with the agriculture community. A willingness to share and conserve has never been more important.

It has been well over 10 years since the newest management plan began; we are losing ground for a healthy river.

Water Watch is pushing for changes we need in Central Oregon right now. And you can help us right now. Don't stand for the Upper Deschutes or the Crooked River being treated as irrigation ditches any more. They've been treated like this for years, and it is time to stop that. Water Watch ( is the best chance we have to save our Central Oregon rivers. Please help us now!

Jeff Perin owns and operates The Fly Fisher's Place in Sisters.

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