Upper Deschutes River Fish Kill - What's Next?

He picked up the lemons that Fate had sent him and started a lemonade-stand. - Elbert Hubbard ca. 1915

While the solution to prevent the thousands of dead trout on the Upper Deschutes we have seen may be, "Put more water in the river", the issue is far more complex than most of us realize and therefore will need a more creative solution to resolve it. As point of fact, there are quite a few organizations involved who are actively working on the "simple" solution even as we speak. The Deschutes River Conservancy published a white paper in September of 2012 called "Upper Deschutes River Background Paper" that outlines a variety of items which address the flow issues which have annually (to varying degrees of severity) resulted in fish being stranded and dying in side channels of the stretch of river between Wickiup Reservoir and Bend. I think this paper has some interesting observations and potential solutions in it. To which I would like to point out the following information from it without getting in to all of the details contained inside:

Historic Flows: "A 1914 U.S. Reclamation Service report referred to the Deschutes River as “one of the most uniform of all streams in the United States, not only from month to month, but also from year to year” (USDA 1996a). The basin’s porous volcanic soil allows surface water to infiltrate into the subsurface and recharge groundwater aquifers. This connectivity aids in maintaining a stable flow regime. (Gannet et al. 2001).

Under natural conditions, unregulated flows in the Deschutes River were near-constant. Summer flows below Wickiup Reservoir averaged 730 cubic feet per second (cfs) and winter flows averaged 660 cfs with extremes in flow varying only by about a factor of two (Hardin-Davis 1991). Prior to the completion and operation of Wickiup Dam in 1947, the lowest flow recorded at an Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) gage at Pringle Falls (River Mile 217) from the years 1916-1940 was 395cfs. The average yearly minimum flow was 554 cfs and the mean daily flow was 710 cfs (OWRD streamflow data from the Pringle Falls gage)."

Current Flows: "As a result of water storage and diversion for irrigation, the stable natural flows of the Upper Deschutes have been replaced by lower flows during the winter storage months and higher flows during the summer irrigation season. This difference is most significant between Wickiup Dam and Fall River, and is moderated as tributaries and springs augment the flow between Fall River and the north boundary of Sunriver. The minimum flow requirement below Wickiup during the storage season from November through March is 20 cfs, or 4% of natural low-flow levels. The median wintertime flow between 1981 and 2011 was 37 cfs. The median summertime flow was 1,150 cfs with median flows in July and August at 1,410 and 1,450 cfs (Oregon Water Resources Department streamflow data from the WICO gage)."

The policies for water fill and draw are within the letter of the law(s) that have been passed with regard to how, when, and why they let water out and leave water in. It's really that simple. So how do we change the rules or laws that govern this issue as a community? C'mon that one is EASY! WE VOTE - WE SPEAK UP TO INFLUENCE THE POLICY MAKERS AS CONSTITUENTS AND ECONOMIC SUPPORTERS OF OUR DEMOCRACY. We need to work collaboratively as a community to achieve this goal - with all the stakeholders governing the flows, and with each other. I will touch on the similarities of our recent government shutdown to drive home the point: "When we stop working on an issue and refuse to budge we all loose something valuable, no matter which side of the political coin you are on."

There are long term program changes that are in play right now, and the parties involved are taking note of the press that has come from this years travesty which gives them cause to move quicker. The issue of flows has been debated and managed this way since the first dam was put in operation in 1922 at Crane Prairie Reservoir and then subsequently at Wickiup Reservoir in 1949. Please remember that we are talking about changing the entire methodology of use that reaches all the way through the entire system that feeds from it. Demanding that our "use change" of the river come overnight by asking for more water right now in my opinion is short-sighted and won't bring those fish back.

We are all fired up right now because of the local, regional and national exposure this event has created and with good reason. No matter what makes us all different, there is no indifference that should be allowing this issue to continue, even those of us who aren't anglers think this is unacceptable. This issue has been a dirty little secret that most of us have been unaware of as long as we have artificially modified the flow regime of the river. As a Board Member of the Deschutes Chapter of Trout Unlimited, and acting as the Communication Chair for the past 5 years, I have been a point of contact for many of you who have shared your concerns when this occurs each year. Please know that I have heard your voice and I am just as disappointed as you and have the same sick feeling in my stomach when I view the horrible pictures I have shared with you.

Many of you have posted comments on our Facebook Page, in private emails and messages that have provided a wide variety of solutions that should be considered and are creative, pragmatic, and inclusive. So my initial quote from Mr. Hubbard at the beginning of this starts making sense with how the river was viewed nearly one hundred years ago and how it is viewed today. While squeezing more water out of this apparent "lemon" of water management practice for the Upper Deschutes may seem the easy way to make lemonade, imagine the lemon is being held protectively by a pride of lions. How would you get the lemon to squeeze it? That is the issue we face as a community and we can overcome this issue for the betterment of our community.

So here's where you ask, "GABE!!! SHUT UP AND TELL ME HOW GET GET OUR LEMONADE!!!!" What I propose is that we lead the effort as a group to ensure when this happens again next year (and the years after until the policies change) we are prepared to save these fish. That means coordinating with the powers that be each year to understand when and how the draw down will occur and be ready to act with proper tools, materials and time to save as many as we can until our efforts are no longer needed. This will also require some planning and access for identifying the various locations along this stretch we will have to monitor and engage each year.

I would also propose that we get together periodically to learn more about the progress of the change in the policies, rules and laws that govern the flows that imperil not just the trout on the river, but the entire ecosystem that relies on it. Whether its a formal presentation from a variety of stakeholder speakers, or a potluck barbecue on the river, an event to raise funds to plant riparian zones that are affected, or just a beer between friends at a local watering hole - ask me anything about it when we see each other. I am always ready to hear your ideas and have conversation that creates new ideas and offer a perspective or direction I may not have considered.

Our beautiful river is the lifeblood of our community and it is in need of our help. We are the antibodies that will cure the sickness that effects its circulatory system. And when we all work together, we will cure what ails it and breath life back into it which inspired those who viewed it 100 years ago.

This will give us a direct mission to achieve as a group. This can bring us closer as neighbors and members of our community. This should make our community a better place to live and set the example for our children who learn so much from what we do.

Gabe Parr


said on Saturday, October 26th, 2013

Nice article, Gabe. I know that there has been a lot of work over the years to achieve a balance for fish, cities and agriculture.  This is a good approach and without a balance, no solution will be sustainable.  With that, I have to say that there is an immediate short term need to turn the water up. I'm not suggesting to crank it up to its instream right of 300, but an interim uptick to 50 or 100.  I fully understand the water law and that there is no legal basis for this yet. However, the low water and ongoing fish kills aren't helping the ag or irrigation districts either.  A short term water increase could help everyone while we all continue to work on a long term solution. 

The low water in the fall elevates the concerns, but what's equally concerning is the high flows in the summer months. I fish the upstream areas almost every weekend and walk it during the winter. It's surprising that it could simultaneously be designated wild and scenic while being essentially used an irrigation canal.  The system is out of balance and needs to be brought back thoughtfullly. 

said on Saturday, October 26th, 2013

Thanks for the reply to the article. I hope more people like you are ready to start working toward creating a brighter future for the Upper Deschutes as a fishery.

It will take time, and as long as we keep on the issue with the pressure our voices create, the process is bound for a successful outcome. It may take years, but I believe there are enough groups of people and individuals who want to make a difference.

While the fish salvage each year is more of a "bandaid on a broken arm" fix, I hope it will serve to help bring the entire community together to a combined goal of the long term fix.

said on Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Here's a clip from the local news on what the Bend Casting Club is helping to do about this issue: lhttp://www.ktvz.com/news/Club-hopes-to-find-solution-to-low-winter-water/-/413192/22706118/-/tumvhrz/-/index.html

As well, a local Oregon business is getting behind the issue by flexing their muscles and has generously offered their services to promote awareness and raise funds to assist us in our efforts: http://diyflykit.bigcartel.com/product/deschutes-red-cross-charity-fly-fishing-tee-shirt

As well, here is a link to our site where people can gather some information on how to help us put pressure on the stakeholders who are part of the management who control the flows on the Upper Deschutes: http://bendcastingclub.org/blog/upper-deschutes-river-fish-kill-what-s-going-to-happen-part-ii.html


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