Fish face less stress this summer statewide

July 19, 2016
Fish face less stress this summer statewide

Central Oregon preparing for fish strandings that come in fall

By Hilary Corrigan

Last year around this time, extremely high temperatures caused problems for fish in waterways across the state.

In Central Oregon, fish kills occurred near the mouth of the Deschutes River and the Middle Fork of the John Day River, where bacteria thrived in the warmer water temperatures.

With cooler water temperatures this year, fish biologists have no real concerns about extreme temperatures or flows now. But for the Upper Deschutes, it’s October when fish face a long-standing problem. That’s when irrigation season ends and storage season starts, meaning the flow of the river from Wickiup Dam gets reduced to store water in Wickiup Reservoir for irrigation next year. The reduction can wind up cutting off water to an approximately mile-long side channel near Lava Island Falls.

Notified of a fish kill in 2013, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife helped concerned Bend residents save fish that had become stranded.

“We lost hundreds of fish that year,” said ODFW Deschutes District Fish Biologist Brett Hodgson.

For 2014 and 2015, the state prepared a crew to save fish and didn’t lose as many — dozens versus hundreds, Hodgson said. The salvage effort involves using electro-fishing units to stun the fish, then netting them and carrying them in buckets of water to the main river.

“It’s quite a labor-intensive effort,” Hodgson said, adding that many of the fish may not survive.

Hodgson expects a similar effort will be needed this year but said the state agency lacks the staff and resources to lead it every year. Irrigation districts have agreed to lead it this year, he said, adding that “the cause of the problem is management of water for irrigation purposes.”

The problem has recently started getting attention, due partly to the fact that a trail runs along the channel and people see the dead fish. But it’s not a new event.

“I suspect, on an intermittent basis, this has been going on for years,” Hodgson said.

In 2013, Kim Brannock — a self-employed designer in the outdoor industry who moved to Bend that year and co-founded Coalition for the Deschutes — highlighted the problem. After finding the stranded fish, she led an effort to quickly rescue some that year and has helped organize similar salvage responses in subsequent years.

Rescuers moved 3,748 fish in 2015 and 6,902 in 2014, according to Brannock. The effort is worth it to Brannock, who argues that the river’s health has been declining for years, and that the fish kill is a sign of it.

“It’s not part of nature. It’s completely caused by man,” Brannock said of the strandings. “How humane is it in our community” for thousands of trout to asphyxiate, she asked.

But most people see only the healthy stretch of river through Bend and not the compromised portion of the waterway’s upper reaches. Besides the dry beds and fish kills, Brannock noted the high river banks exposed in the winter and the erosion from the very high spring and summer flows.

“It’s not solving the problem by any means, but it’s the right thing to do while man can get their stuff together,” Brannock said of the fish salvage efforts. “The health of the river is compromised.”

Kyle Gorman, region manager with the Oregon Water Resources Department, considers various factors when reducing the amount of water released from Wickiup Reservoir in the fall. Those factors include forecasts of the amount of groundwater, rain and snowmelt that will help fill the reservoir — and the amount leftover from the summer, the carry-over.

This year, instead of a minimum outflow of 20 cubic feet per second, irrigation districts have agreed to a minimum outflow of 100 cfs, Gorman said. In past years, the outflow has been 100 cfs or more, but that minimum level has not been set without first considering the forecasts of incoming water that helps fill the reservoir.

Other efforts have also tried to mitigate impacts, for instance by reducing the flow at a slower or faster rate to see how fish respond. But with recent drought years, the strandings have still occurred.

“It’s something that’s gone on a long time. It doesn’t mean it’s right,” Central Oregon Irrigation District Manager Craig Horrell said of the fish kill.

The irrigation districts have hired a fish biologist and are now working with nonprofit groups to train volunteers to rescue stranded fish.

“We’re preparing for it,” Horrell said, adding that he expects to have to do some fish salvage this fall. “We’re putting that group together right now.”

It’s harder to address the problems on the Upper Deschutes than the problems on the rest of that river because of the need to store water through the winter and release it in the summer to meet farmers’ demands, he said. But the districts aim to solve the problem longer-term, and Horrell called the fish-kill rescue efforts a temporary fix.

“Really, the only way the stranding is resolved is more water,” he said, noting a need to balance keeping water in the river and filling the reservoir. “The long-term solution is balance the flows.”

Tod Heisler, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, noted complicated rules — both state and federal — govern water rights from Wickiup Reservoir. The North Unit Irrigation District has water rights from the reservoir and under federal rules, the reservoir water is only for an irrigation district, Heisler noted. The conservancy buys water rights to restore water to the river, but cannot buy Wickiup Reservoir water rights because the group is not an irrigation district. And any water saved does not automatically translate anyway into saving water in that location but instead, under current rules, goes back to the river at the point of diversion — in Bend.

“We’re all working on strategies to solve this problem,” Heisler said, but solving it “doesn’t happen overnight.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,

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