Annual fish rescue at Lava Island saves thousands of Deschutes River fish

October 19, 2022
Annual fish rescue at Lava Island saves thousands of Deschutes River fish

A fish rescue in the Upper Deschutes River in mid-October has become an annual event at Lava Island Falls. This year, thousands of fish were rescued and transferred to the main channel of the river.

The need to rescue fish occurs a few days after officials reduce the amount of water flowing from Wickiup Reservoir following the summer irrigation season. When the river level is intentionally lowered, water stops flowing down a mile and half channel at Lava Island Falls, stranding fish in shallow pools.

Volunteers led by the Deschutes River Conservancy spent Saturday, Sunday and Monday collecting the fish in nets, transferring them to buckets, and then walking them to the top of the blocked channel. The rescue netted 5,643 rainbow trout, 20 brown trout, 69 whitefish, 1,191 sculpin, and five kokanee for a total of 6,928 saved fish.

The fish rescue is needed because the level of the Deschutes River falls to extremely low levels in the winter. Historically, before the construction of Wickiup dam altered the river’s flow, around 600 to 800 cubic feet per second of water ran down the Deschutes River in winter, enough to allow fish to swim freely.

The flow from mid-October through March is now reduced to around 100 cfs to conserve water for the irrigation season next year. Canal-to-pipe conservation projects that are ongoing in different parts of the Deschutes Basin will eventually allow the districts to release more water during the winter.

Craig Horrell, the general manager of Central Oregon Irrigation District, said once a minimum flow of around 130 to 180 cfs can be set in winter the channel at Lava Island Falls will have water flowing through it year-round.

Marisa Hossick, a spokesperson for the Deschutes River Conservancy, said the three-day rescue this year involved 75 volunteers. Due to a premature draining of the reservoir, the fish had to be rescued earlier than expected, moving the schedule up two days.

“We do our best to plan everything out, but nature is unpredictable, and we must adapt,” said Hossick. “We’re so grateful for the flexibility and dedication of our volunteers. They were ready to help at a moment’s notice one day and gracefully understand when we don’t need their help after all.”

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