May 19, 2011 - The Oregonian - Upper Deschutes River could ease into protections for threatened stee

May 24, 2011

May 19, 2011 - The Oregonian - Upper Deschutes River could ease into protections for threatened stee

Upper Deschutes River could ease into protections for threatened steelhead

Published: Thursday, May 19, 2011, 6:09 PM
By Special to The Oregonian

Threatened steelhead are being reintroduced to the upper Deschutes River, but the protections for the at-risk fish are being delayed so cities, counties, irrigators and landowners can have time to adjust.

For the first time the National Marine Fisheries Service is proposing to designate the run of federally protected steelhead in the upper Deschutes as "experimental" to avoid repercussions if the fish get harmed during the course of daily operations.

The proposed designation, announced late Wednesday, would last 12 years and is designed to give water users time to devise plans to improve habitat and operations in parts of Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties. Some of those projects are already under way.

"This proposal reflects what people were asking for," said Tod Heisler, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend. "It keeps peace in the valley while we get the long-term solution in place."

The mid-Columbia River species of steelhead that returns to the lower Deschutes River was listed by the federal government as threatened in 1999, triggering myriad protections and restrictions. Part of the federal government's plan to operate Columbia and Snake River dams is to restore three steelhead populations in the Deschutes basin.

In 2005, Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, agreed to reintroduce steelhead from their hatchery at Round Butte Dam into the upper Deschutes basin as part of the dam's relicensing agreement. A year later a court decision allowed NMFS to add the Round Butte hatchery steelhead to its threatened list.

It wasn't until March 2007 that irrigators and the city of Prineville realized the impact of federally protected steelhead returning to miles of streams in the upper basin. Irrigators had a decision to make -- should they fight the reintroduction or help make it work, said David Filippi, an attorney for the group.

Representatives of seven irrigation districts, the city of Prineville and PGE went to NMFS' regional office in Seattle a month later to see if there was a way to reintroduce the fish but let water users continue operational improvements and allow time to develop a habitat improvement plan. Designating hatchery steelhead in the upper Deschutes as "experimental" would allow that, but NMFS had not used the designation before.

A listing of the fish as threatened would have set up more legal requirements, more bureaucratic hurdles while slowing projects already under way and chasing away money to do future ones, said Heisler.

"It keeps everybody working together," he said.

On Wednesday, the agency proposed the designation and asked for public comment.

Under the proposal, after 12 years -- enough time for three generations of steelhead to return -- the steelhead in the upper Deschutes basin would join NFMS' threatened list.

Local governments, irrigators, landowners and state and federal agencies have already formed groups to plan, start and make improvements. Irrigators have taken out loans to put open canals underground, PGE has a $21.5 million central Oregon habitat fund, and the state of Oregon has supplied watershed councils $9 million.

"There haven't been the conflicts between users and other groups here," Filippi said. "This is a model to show the rest of the West that you can reintroduce fish and lessen the impact on communities."

--Quinton Smith

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