Part one: What Price for Deschutes River Salmon Reintroduction?
By Terry Otto
Is a well-meaning reintroduction project actually hurting the wild fish of the Deschutes River?
Greg McMillan of Bend, OR, was looking forward to more fishing trips after retiring in August of 2011. However, when he arrived at the Deschutes River he was surprised at what he found. “There were no caddis,” he says. “There were no caddis hanging in the trees, there were no caddis hatching, and at that time of year there should have been a lot.” Other anglers were scratching their heads, too. Something was wrong with the river, but what?
The answer may lie to the south at the Round Butte Dam, which forms Lake Billy Chinook on the upper Deschutes. An effort to restore anadromous fish runs above the lake has led to a change in the water released from the reservoir. In this two-part article we will cover this new project, and the unforeseen consequences it has produced.
Lake Billy Chinook was completed in the late 50’s, but the fish ladder did not work, and a thermal barrier in the lake confused the out-migrating smolts. In the sixties the ladder was closed, and it was accepted that anadromy above the lake was lost. Cold water from the lake’s depths was released into the Deschutes River, fueling a world-class trout and steelhead fishery.
That is, until operations at Round Butte Dam had to be relicensed. That’s when the idea was hatched to reintroduce runs of Chinook, sockeye, and steelhead to their former habitat above the lake. A selective water withdrawal tower was built above the dam to mix the waters in the lake and remove the thermal barrier blocking outmigration. Returning adults are passed above the dam to spawn.
Also, by mixing the waters before release, managers hoped to mimic the water temps in the Deschutes that they say existed before the dam was in place.
Warm water blues on the Deschutes
According to fishermen on the lower Deschutes, it’s been a colossal failure. Fish returns have been paltry, and the mixing of waters has had unforeseen consequences. The timing of insect hatches has shifted, the steelhead migration has been delayed, and water quality in the river has suffered.
PGE Aquatic Biologist Bob Spateholts explains that Portland General Electric, (PGE), which manages the Round Butte Dam, is simply following its relicensing mandate. “We are strictly regulated by other agencies,” he says. This license allows little leave way for managers to alter operations.
That being said, all is not written in stone.
Early in the project operators mixed the water according to a computer model designed to mimic natural conditions in the river, but the results were not what was expected. “With the original model we weren’t getting the temperatures that were predicted,” says Spateholts. “We are now adapting, and blending the water to more closely match the target temperatures.”
He says they are trying to mimic “what the river temps would be without the project in place.” That has lead to warmer releases in June and July, and a warmer Deschutes. Summer steelhead used to start entering the Deschutes in June, but the river is often warmer than the Columbia River now. The steelhead migration has shifted, and steelhead don’t show until late July.
Complaining fishermen have said they are being ignored, and from the standpoint of the dam’s operators, the fishing downstream is not their concern. They have to stick to the conditions in the license. “We do not have the mandate to change flows to make the fishing better,” says Spateholts. “That’s not within our decision making capacity.”
The Deschutes River Alliance
After sparring unsuccessfully with PGE to get the agency to address fishermen’s concerns, McMillan took action. He founded the Deschutes River Alliance, a consortium of individuals, businesses and fishermen that are passionate about the river, and its life.
The Alliance claims that the warmer water has done more than alter the timing of many of the river’s hatches; it seems to have wiped out certain species. They have documented a new form of algae that is covering the river bottom and squeezing out insects, too. They have recorded overly high pH readings, and believe this and the algae are the result of the releases of lake surface water carrying a high nutrient load, throwing the river’s life out of balance. The Alliance collects river data on its own to bolster their arguments. They have sat down with PGE, but the results have been disappointing. “It feels like we are getting stone-walled,” says McMillan.
He points to extremely low returns of anadromous adults from the millions of dollars spent on reintroduction, including the cost of the new facilities, habitat restoration projects above the dam and other costs, all for poor returns, and a diminished Deschutes.
Spateholts admits the returns have been “Much less than we expected. Our Chinook return is less than 1 %.” Out-migrating Chinook from the lake are infected with copepods. Sockeye returns are disappointing, too, with only a couple dozen making it to the dam last year. The Kokanee stock used for the sockeye program does not seem disposed to re-establish an ocean run.
The Alliance believes that the owners of the dam, which includes the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs and PGE, are willing to sacrifice the existing world-class fisheries below the dam on the altar of reintroduction.
PGE claims it is not deaf to fishermen’s concerns, but their actions seem to indicate otherwise. Indeed, Spateholts reiterated the goal of the program. “PGE and partners are committed to restoring fish runs and improve water quality.”
The Deschutes River Alliance
PO Box 440
Maupin, OR 97037
Brad staples, fishing and rafting Guide, 503-250-0558
John Smeraglio, Deschutes Canyon Fly Shop, (541) 395-2565
Photos courtesy of the Deschutes River Alliance