State sets fish ladders at Opal Springs as top priority

May 10, 2015
State sets fish ladders at Opal Springs as top priority

Steelhead show they want up the Crooked River

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

The big effort to restore ocean-going fish runs in Central Oregon’s major rivers has put the focus on a small diversion dam a half-mile up the Crooked River from Lake Billy Chinook.

Tucked into the Crooked River canyon, the Opal Springs Hydroelectric Project diverts water from the river through a power-producing turbine for the Deschutes Valley Water District. The structure also prevents salmon and steelhead from swimming upstream.

Over the past three years, fish tracked with radio tags by Portland General Electric through Billy Chinook, particularly steelhead, overwhelmingly swam to the Crooked River arm of the lake, said Brett Hodgson, district fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Bend.

That piqued the state’s interest in seeing a fish ladder installed at the diversion, he said, which would give the fish access to more than 100 miles of spawning and rearing habitat upstream.

“Passage at Opal Springs is the No. 2 fish passage project in the entire state for ODFW,” Hodgson said, “so we view it as critically important.”

The only fish passage project ahead of Opal Springs are the dams along the Snake River in Hells Canyon.

The state is not alone in its interest in Opal Springs. A contingent of fish and water groups — the Northwest Steelheaders, Central Oregon Flyfishers, the Native Fish Society, WaterWatch, the Crooked River Watershed Council, the Wild Salmon Center and the Wild Steelhead Coalition — have joined together to support a website, www.opal, explaining the situation and asking for donations to help change it.

Yancy Lind, conservation chairman of the Central Oregon Flyfishers and past president of the Northwest Steelheaders, said he spearheaded the website, the point of which is to raise visibility about Opal Springs.

Like Hodgson he said steelhead have been drawn to the Crooked River since 2012, when Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs started releasing upstream-migrating fish into Billy Chinook’s waters. The power company and tribes co-own the Pelton Round Butte dam complex, which creates Billy Chinook. They began restoration efforts for salmon and steelhead last decade as part of renewing a federal license for the power-producing dam project. The centerpiece of the work is a $100 million submerged tower that helps direct fish migrating downstream.

For decades the Pelton Round Butte dam complex had been a barrier for fish trying to swim out to sea as they would become lost in the turbulent currents in the lake. Now with the tower in place, Portland General Electric and the tribes have been trapping steelehead and salmon coming in from the Pacific Ocean and up the Deschutes River, hauling them by truck and releasing them into Billy Chinook.

Once in the lake, the fish have three main options of where to go — the Metolius River, the Deschutes River and the Crooked River.

Data provided by Portland General Electric show so far the bulk of the fish, mainly steelhead, head to the Crooked River.

“The fish have clearly spoken,” Lind said.

But there they hit the Opal Springs diversion dam. While a trap-and-haul effort has been underway there, Hodgson said only about 50 percent of the fish swim into the traps. Installing a fish ladder would give the fish the ability to swim up and over the dam, he said, and greatly increase the number of fish making it upriver.

While the Opal Springs Hydroelectric Project, installed in the 1980s, is not due for a new federal license itself until 2032, Lind said he is encouraged to see the water district wanting to do something about the fish passage problem now. The diversion produces about 32 million kilowatt hours annually, power which the district sells to Pacific Power, according to the district website.

The district reached an agreement in fall 2011 with federal and state agencies, as well as Trout Unlimited, to add a fish ladder at Opal Springs.

As planned, the project would cost $7.5 million to $8 million in all, Hodgson said. The water district has already committed $4 million to the project and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board has put up $1 million so there are still millions of dollars left to find.

“The only thing we need to make this project go forward is money,” Hodgson said. He said there could be more grants available.

Lind said he hopes his website will also bring in money to support the cause.

While many restoration projects, including course correction and small dam removal, focused on Whychus Creek, a tributary of the Deschutes, for whatever reason the steelhead are drawn to the Crooked River, said Chris Gannon, executive director for the Crooked River Watershed Council.

“A lot of people have thought the Crooked is not the place these fish would want to go,” Gannon said.

Although the river can be warmer and have less water than other options, he said these factors could work in its favor. Steelhead rely on cues from the river to know when to migrate and the harsher the conditions in a river, the stronger these cues may be.

So far the fish are choosing the Crooked River.

“There is just no doubt about that,” Gannon said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,

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