Rescue effort aims to save stranded Deschutes River fish

Rescue effort aims to save stranded Deschutes River fish
Annual die-off occurs at small channel when river flows are reduced
By Hilary Corrigan
The Bulletin

October 14, 2016

Volunteers and contractors spent part of this week shocking, netting and moving stranded fish from a dry river channel near Bend in what’s become an annual fish rescue.

Fish get stranded along the same approximately 1-mile stretch of channel that dries out just about every year from Lava Island Trailhead to Meadow Camp off the Deschutes River, when water released from Wickiup Dam into the Deschutes River is reduced to store it for next year’s irrigation season.

On Wednesday evening, Bend resident Kim Brannock and her 10-year-old daughter, Bella, walked over the rocky river channel bed to net small fish from remaining pools of water. Contractors waded through a larger pond to capture fish. The small crew dropped the fish into big buckets to carry along an adjacent trail to the main river, then waded in there to release them, working past dark. They counted them as they let them go, recording the numbers, types and sizes of fish rescued — nearly 800 on Wednesday.

On Thursday, Brannock, the contractors and several more volunteers returned. Working in a steady rain, they used electrofishing equipment — including a small boat and backpacks — to stun the fish with an electrical current and net them. More fish can be captured using this method than just using nets, for instance, when they can hide in some of the deeper remaining ponds. Ian Courter, a fish biologist and owner of Mount Hood Environmental, the Boring firm contracted for the job, estimated more than 95 percent of fish survive the electrofishing capture.

It was Brannock who, as a new resident in 2013, noticed the stranded fish and led an effort to quickly rescue them.

She has since co-founded Coalition for the Deschutes, and the salvage response has since grown, with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife leading it in subsequent years before handing it off this year to area irrigation districts.

Fish rescue numbers were still being collected as the effort continues today. The fish are mostly rainbow trout, with some brown trout and white fish. Estimates for past years’ rescues include around 8,000 to 10,000 fish in 2013, around 6,900 in 2014 and around 3,750 in 2015.

“Can you imagine what it would look like if we just let them all die?” Brannock said.

Brett Hodgson, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fish biologist, went out to the site Wednesday and noticed that, so far, the number of fish in the channel appeared to be “down considerably” compared with last year — continuing the declining trend since 2013, he said.

“I definitely noticed a reduction in the number of fish,” Hodgson said. He guesses the consecutive years of reduced water that dries out the channel leads to smaller populations of aquatic insects, fish and other water creatures using it. If the channel had stable flows for a couple of years, those populations might rebound.

But Hodgson also noted the situation in the channel is simply a very visual and graphic representation of what’s going on in the Upper Deschutes River as a whole. He pointed to trout populations and ODFW’s monitoring of the fish from 2012 to 2015.

“It was very difficult to find native redband trout,” Hodgson said.

When the river’s flow runs at about 2,000 cubic feet per second for six months, then switches to about 30 cfs, it’s tough for fish to live, Hodgson said. Problems result for the river from Wickiup all the way to Lake Billy Chinook, but the approximately 20 miles from Wickiup to Benham Falls is “the most challenged stretch of the river,” he said.

This season, the reduced flow level is about 100 cfs — “a step in the right direction,” Hodgson said, but still not high enough to keep water in the channel.

“We need to figure out water conservation and water management strategies” to meet the different demands for the river’s water, Hodgson said, noting that fish and the ecology of the river now “are taking the big brunt.”

Central Oregon Irrigation District manager Craig Horrell noted that the only way to solve the problem entails increasing flows of the river.

“This is a temporary way that we’re dealing with stranded fish,” Horrell said of the fish rescue efforts.

Brannock noted efforts to improve irrigation canals and operations, but also emphasized a need to provide irrigation districts with ways to trade their water savings so conservation accomplished elsewhere on the waterway can be applied to the upper part of the river to help increase the flow in the winter — changes that may require policy or legislative action.

“That’s why the community really has to get involved,” Brannock said, noting the power of public pressure and questioning why irrigation in the area has changed so little over 100 years.

“Our community really has a lack of awareness of how our watershed works.”

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