Suttle Lake fish passage on target

November 5, 2013
Suttle Lake fish passage on target

By Jim Anderson

Native gamefish species in Lake Creek, a tributary to the Metolius River beginning at the outlet of Suttle Lake, include: sensitive redband trout, threatened bull trout, spring Chinook salmon and kokanee/sockeye salmon.

According to a report by Nate Dachtler and Paul Powers, USFS Fisheries biologists, the last "good" Chinook run observed at the Spring Creek Hatchery was in 1953, after which numbers began to dwindle.

Dachtler and other biologists recognized that the fish passage at the outlet of Suttle Lake was not functioning the way it should, if the attempts to bring sockeye salmon back to the lake to spawn were going to work.

The problem Dachtler inherited really began long before he was born, as far back as 1930, when a concrete dam and small hydroelectric unit were installed at the outlet to raise the depth of the water for recreation and generate power for the newly built lodge. The welfare of sockeye salmon wasn't even a glimmer in the developer's eye at the time. In time, the dam so proudly built began to crumble.

In 1961 the Forest Service - who controls the public land on which the lodge and lake stand - began to think about the welfare of sockeye salmon. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, PGE, Deschutes Watershed Council, Trout Unlimited and several other partners got into the recovery projects and began looking forward to a run of sockeye salmon returning from the sea to Suttle Lake.

The old 1930s dam and now-defunct power house were removed from the old site and a new dam was installed by the USFS, just downstream. But it wasn't long before fishery biologists found that dam, too, interfered with fish passage.

During the re-licensing of the PGE power generation dams, the fishery interests really got their foot in the door. Money was allocated to restore the historical fish runs and new life began to appear in the form of fish-friendly construction projects. PGE came up with equipment to skim fish from Lake Billy Chinook at the Round Butte Dam site and send them uninjured downriver to a safe route to the ocean.

Other things were also taking place, the result of a combination of partnerships that involved just about every conservation group in Central Oregon and Sisters Country.

Sisters High School students - as a part of the schools academic programs - began to restore the banks of the Metolius River, planting thousands of shrubs, grasses and trees that stabilized the soils.

One of the concerns engineers and fish biologists had when they removed the old dams is that the level of Suttle Lake would drop too low when they were done. With planning from Allan Buehrig, project engineer, and Dachtler's meticulous excavation design, placing logs and rocks to control erosion and rebuilding of the outlet with the proper riffles not only succeeded, but better than they had expected: The lake level dropped less than an inch.

Last week, the crew from Botanical Development bored holes all over the raw earth island in the middle of the fish passage, and along the banks of Lake Creek planting hundreds of riparian plants; alders, cottonwoods, shrubs and native grasses.

Each year, Warm Springs fish biologists count the number of kokanee salmon leaving Suttle Lake for the sea. When they return they'll be the sockeye salmon everyone is hoping for.

"See that gravel bar just upstream of the old dam site?" Dachtler asked, pointing to the rounded portion of gravel. "That's spawning habitat. When the sockeye return, they'll find perfect spawning habitat right there, and won't have to travel though the entire lake to the inlet at Link Creek to find the right place. When the eggs hatch the fish will spend a year in the lake then make their run to the sea."

Dachtler reported from last year's 2012-2013 adult salmon returns: 86 sockeye, 49 Chinook, 111 steelhead. So far this season, 22 Chinook and 24 sockeye have been counted.

"I could not get ahold of the tribes to get data from the last few years," Dachtler mentioned. "But in 2009, I know that over 1,000 smolts were captured leaving Suttle Lake."

In the meantime, SHS IEE students will continue planting and restoring the banks of the Metolius and Whychus Creek, PGE will continue to skim the salmon from Lake Billy Chinook, the Confederation Tribes of Warm Springs, Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, Trout Unlimited and other partners will keep improving places like the outlet of Suttle Lake to bring native fish back home.

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