Salmon and Steelhead Restoration: A Collaborative Journey

July 12, 2021
Salmon and Steelhead Restoration: A Collaborative Journey

How the Deschutes Basin Came Together to Bring Back Migrating Fish

By Tai’Anne Smith, Deschutes River Conservancy

After 45 years, salmon and steelhead have finally returned to the Deschutes Basin. These migrating fish are hatched in freshwater streams, live most of their adult life in the ocean, then return to their home stream to spawn and the cycle continues. Take one part of this journey out and the stops the cycle altogether.

When the Round Butte Dam was built in the 1960’s, this is exactly what happened. The original fish passage built into the dam failed to allow returning salmon and steelhead to migrate past the dam and into the upper basin. This fish barrier interrupted the natural ecosystem of the river and seriously impacted salmon and steelhead populations above the dam. In 2009, Portland General Electric (PGE) and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (Tribes), co-owners of the Round Butte Dam, installed an underwater town and fish collection station as a part of their federal relicensing agreement (FERC).

The facility has been successful in reestablishing fish passage at Round Butte Dam and starting in 2012, returning adult salmon and steelhead have been documented. Numbers have increased over the years and right now, there are 111 adult spring Chinook upstream of the dams.

The return of these two species is important for many different reasons. For example, conservationists want to see the steelhead fishery restored to their historical habitats, the places in the upper basin that were previously inaccessible because of the dam. Anglers want to improve salmon and steelhead populations for a better fishing experience. And then there are those for whom this is a deeply cultural need, the Tribes.

Indigenous people of Central Oregon have always relied on the Creators’ gift of salmon for feeding our people. For the Tribes, myself included, salmon is what we call a First Food; meaning it is a culturally important food to maintain our traditional ways. After fish passage failed at the dam, our community wanted to reestablish sustainable salmon runs above the Pelton project to ensure Tribal members could continue fishing the way we have since time immemorial.

Growing up in Warm Springs, I remember the easy access we had to salmon. People would go fishing and share their catches with other tribal members. I’m only 22 now, but I remember a time, not that long ago when salmon was a part of our daily lives. Now we mostly get to enjoy this important cultural food during specific community gatherings throughout the year.

Jim Manion is the General Manager of Warm Springs Power and Water Enterprises and a registered member of the Wasco Tribe, one of three Tribes residing in the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation. “We were always taught about the importance of taking care of the gifts from the Creator, salmon is one of our First Foods from the creator. You can understand why we have a vested interest in making sure our rivers and streams are healthy. We need good access to clean water and healthy fish for today and for generations to come.”

The Deschutes River Conservancy (DRC) has been working for the past 25 years support the reintroduced salmon and steelhead by restoring flows to our rivers and creeks in order to support the lifecycle of the fish.

Whychus Creek is a tributary of the Deschutes River that was a historical salmon and steelhead spawning ground. Prior to the DRC’s and other partners’ restoration efforts, Whychus Creek would run dry in two of every three years. Now the creek flows year-round and is better able to support the life cycle of migrating and native fish. Through collaborative efforts, projects in Whychus have focused on restoring the structure and function of the creek through increased streamflow, habitat restoration, as well as other conservation efforts. Mckay Creek is another important reach for migrating fish. The creek is a tributary to the Crooked River and currently provides irrigation water for a number of area landowners. McKay Creek is an intermittent creek, meaning it naturally runs dry at the end of the summer. With its current irrigation demands, the creek runs dry earlier than it would naturally, impacting the rearing phase of the steelhead lifecycle.

The DRC has been working with the local irrigation district, Ochoco Irrigation District (OID) to implement a project called the McKay Creek Switch which will restore the natural flow cycle by allowing landowners to trade private water rights for OID water rights. This trade for more reliable OID water rights will transfer 11.2 cubic feet per second (CFS) instream and will extend the annual cycle of the creek.

The presence of chinook salmon, steelhead, and sockeye in the Deschutes Basin brings significant funding opportunities for streamflow restoration and habitat improvement projects. These instream improvements not only help these migrating fish, but are beneficial to resident fish and other wildlife. The access to funding brings opportunities to several organizations to make contributions to the basin in their own specialized ways.

Megan Hill, Natural Resource Manager for PGE at the Pelton Round Butte Hydroelectric Project, touted the success of these basin-wide efforts. “The reintroduction of salmon and steelhead to the Deschutes Basin is a very collaborative effort with many different organizations working at this from all different sides.”

The DRC is increasing streamflow through collaborative work with irrigation districts. The Upper Deschutes Watershed Council is improving habitat and riparian areas important to migrating fish. The Deschutes Land Trust is putting critical habitat areas into preserves. The Tribes and PGE have funded many of these restoration projects through the Pelton Round Butte Mitigation Fund. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife releases 100,000 smolt every year to maintain the fishery.

The reintroduction of salmon and steelhead is great not only for the fish, but other wildlife that live where they will journey through. They bring with them nutrients unique to the ocean that are beneficial to the forest and mammal health. So, in the future when they start making runs of the thousands, we’ll start seeing measurable changes.

About the author: Tai’Anne Smith is the PGE Project Zero communications intern for the Deschutes River Conservancy. Here at DRC, she has found a strong interest for writing and a passion to want to save the water we share on this planet.

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