Fish rescued again along Deschutes River

October 15, 2015
Fish rescued again along Deschutes River

ODFW official: Salvage “not a long-term solution” to low flow problem

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin

LAVA ISLAND FALLS — Low flows along the Deschutes River upstream of Bend have again stranded fish and prompted a rescue.

About a dozen volunteers joined 12 Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Forest Service workers Wednesday, pulling trout, sculpin and whitefish out of shrinking pools in a nearly milelong side channel to the river.

The group, which also salvaged fish over the weekend and earlier this week, collected 3,650 trout — 90 percent rainbow and 10 percent brown — hundreds of sculpin and a hundred whitefish, said Erik Moberly, assistant district fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Bend.

At least 500 trout died after becoming stranded starting last weekend.

This was the third consecutive autumn for a fish rescue along the same stretch of the Deschutes, downstream of Wickiup Reservoir near Lava Island Falls.

Volunteers and officials said changes in water management would have to be made in the stretch between the reservoir and Bend to prevent the need to salvage fish.

“What we are doing today is not a long-term solution to the problem,” Moberly said Wednesday.

The low flows result from the Oregon Water Resources Department trying to fill Wickiup Reservoir for next year’s irrigation season as much as possible amid ongoing drought in Central Oregon.

The department cut flows out of the reservoir Wednesday to about 20 cubic feet per second, just above the legal minimum, and they will likely stay there for the next 180 days, said Jeremy Giffin, Deschutes Basin watermaster for the department in Bend. The department has dropped Deschutes flows to near the minimum in nearly half of the years since Wickiup Dam was completed in 1949.

“We try to maximize storage in the reservoir,” Giffin said, especially in years like this when a low snowpack caused less-than-normal inflow into Wickiup and Crane Prairie reservoirs.

Less water coming from Wickiup Reservoir means less water flowing down the Deschutes River. When the flow drops below 700 cfs at Benham Falls, the Lava Island side channel goes dry. As of Wednesday the river was flowing at 538 cfs at Benham Falls.

Moberly expected the side channel to be completely dry in the next couple of days.

While the stranding of fish in the side channel likely has been occurring in low-flow years for decades, it drew the public’s attention in October 2013.

Kim Brannock of Bend spotted dead and dying fish there while running that fall along the Deschutes River Trail. The next day she, her husband, daughter and neighbor netted fish, put them in buckets equipped with aerators and hauled them up and over a rise along the trail to the Lava Island Falls boat ramp, where they put them back into the river.

Brannock has since joined the board of the Bend Casting Club and the Deschutes River Alliance. Over the weekend she also launched a Facebook page for a new group called the Deschutes River Keepers. She said the goal is to educate people about the challenges for the river caused by managing water for irrigation.

Brannock was among the volunteers this week rescuing fish. She’s not shy about talking about dam removal, specifically of Wickiup and Crane Prairie dams, as a way to fix the fish-stranding situation.

“There are already people looking at that,” she said. “It’s not so far-fetched.”

But removing the dams would create the need to find water storage elsewhere. Wickiup Reservoir holds water for the North Unit Irrigation District, which supplies farmers near Madras.

Dam removal would also require support from federal lawmakers, a difficult task when weighed against the economic benefits for Central Oregon of agriculture around Madras, said Mike Tripp, president of Trout Unlimited Deschutes Chapter 552 in Bend. Trout Unlimited is a national organization focused on fisheries restoration.

A solution for the problem on the Deschutes River could include replacing more canals with pipes, increasing efficiency; promoting efficient water use at individual farms; and better coordinating when and from where Central Oregon irrigation districts take water.

Like Moberly, Gabe Parr — founder of the Bend Casting Club and an organizer of the past two volunteer fish rescues, said a lasting solution must be found.

“What we are doing is still a Band-Aid,” he said. “But it is important to keep it visible in the public eye.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,

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