For the past several dry to normal years, the Lava Island side channel has run completely dry, creating the urgent need for an annual fish salvage. This year however, despite water managers holding back flows as usual, the channel has not yet dried out.
Last winter’s amazing snowpack went a long way to replenishing a parched system in the Deschutes Basin. Snowpack acts as a reservoir, storing water until it melts off – and our porous volcanic geology acts like a giant sponge. This year, that sponge was wet. We saw this play out this year with the 2017 Fish Salvage in the Lava Island side channel upstream from Meadow Camp in the Upper Deschutes.
Every fall, flows in the Deschutes are held back in Wickiup Reservoir creating a dramatic reduction in flows, changing from a high of 2000 cubic feet per second to a low of 100 cubic feet per second. For the past several years, that decrease has been enough to cut off the Lava Island side channel, stranding thousands of fish and prompting local efforts to relocate fish to the mainstem of the Deschutes River.
“Moving the fish like this isn’t sustainable,” said Shon Rae, Assistant Manager of Central Oregon Irrigation District. “It’s a reactive response until we get more flow into the river.” Local irrigation districts have recently taken over the efforts to salvage fish populations stranded as a result of seasonal river management.
What does this mean for flows now? Just looking at the snowpack data from this year so far, you can see that precipitation is already five times above average creating a bounty of water in the system that is supplementing the low flows coming out of Wickiup Reservoir. For the moment, the river is getting a small reprieve.
Snowpack throughout the winter is hard to predict. Precipitation in the winter can start out strong, then several weeks of dry weather can turn that all on its head. Month to month, year to year snowpack is a constant variable. In a matter of weeks, snowpack can change shift from higher than average to below average. Balancing water management will help alleviate the effects of this unpredictability and also improve the stability of all water needs including the river. The way water is managed in Central Oregon is on the precipice of changing. Until then, we need to be prepared to rescue fish when needed.