Drought taking toll on head of the Metolius River

August 7, 2021
Drought taking toll on head of the Metolius River

Flows from iconic spring are half of what they were three years ago

The drought that is emptying reservoirs and causing early snowmelt in the Cascades is now impacting this area’s springs, including the iconic headwater spring of the Metolius River. The spring, which feeds into the Metolius River, has an outflow of just 55 cubic feet of water per second, according to data provided by the Oregon Water Resources Department. That’s about a 50% drop in the outflow from just three years ago.

“The drought is having a profound effect on the natural systems,” said Kyle Gorman, region manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department. “We have seen a significant drop in (Metolius headwater) flows over the past year that is in agreement with all other indicators of extremely dry conditions.”

In June 2018, the head of the Metolius had an outflow of 102 cubic feet per second. That dropped to 95.6 cfs in June 2019 and 74 cfs in June 2020. It’s now around 55 cubic feet per second.

The Metolius River — designated as a National Wild and Scenic River in 1988 — is a recreational area known for its excellent fly fishing opportunities as well as hiking and biking trails. Its name is derived from the Sahaptin (Warm Springs) word “mitula,” which means white fish and refers to a light-colored Chinook salmon.

While the outflow of the headwaters has fallen off, the height of the Metolius River has remained relatively stable. Gorman reports that at one gauging station north of Camp Sherman, the Metolius River had dropped just 0.2 of a foot from its usual height.

The Metolius has remained at a relatively stable height because just downstream of the headwaters, it receives input from several tributaries including Lake Creek and Spring Creek.

Justin Iverson, the groundwater section manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department, said there are also a number of springs that flow into the Metolius in addition to the headwaters.

Iverson said the majority of the drop-off in spring flow is due to drought, but other regular visitors say Central Oregon’s increasing population is also to blame.

“Drought is playing a large part, penetrating into the water table, but as the community grows we are drilling into the water table more and more and more,” said Jeff Perin, the owner of The Fly Fisher’s Place in Sisters.

Perin said numerous creeks and springs that flow into the Metolius have helped to maintain the river as a healthy fishery.

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