Water diversion kills more than 150 fish

Water diversion kills more than 150 fish
Rachel Odell
Bend Bulletin

May 23, 2003

A fisheries biologist from the Sisters Ranger District of the Deschutes National Forest found more than 150 dead fish Thursday in a portion of Squaw Creek south of Sisters that dried up earlier in the week.

That section of the creek went dry after Squaw Creek Irrigation District and the Sokal family each diverted water to which they had a legal right, said Kyle Gorman, regional manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department.

The area stretches about one mile from the Sokal diversion, a private irrigation ditch, north to about a half mile from Sisters

Among the dead fish, biologist Mike Riehle found 10 redband trout, 100 long-nose dace and 83 sculpin.

Redband trout are a sensitive species, which means officials have documented a decline in the number of fish. Officials want to manage them to maintain or increase the population to prevent listing on the federal endangered species list, Riehle said.

He estimated more fish died than he actually counted, and spawning beds likely dried out, which would kill laid eggs. The fish likely died from dehydration or because the pools they were trapped in warmed up and there was a lack of oxygen, he said.

Gorman called the incident unusual and said officials immediately responded, releasing more water from a diversion dam upstream of the portion and flooding the creek bed with more water.

Gorman learned of the situation Monday after a hiker complained of the lack of water in that section of the creek.

The dry portion of the creek originally went undiscovered because officials did not see the section, relying instead on measuring gauges placed along Squaw Creek that showed there was ”water of the required legal amount at the required locations,” Gorman said.

That means that there was a measurable amount of water at the gauges.

The gauges are located at a diversion dam where Squaw Creek Irrigation District diverts water from the creek and at a station in Sisters.

However, Pole Creek flows into Squaw Creek above the measuring device in town, but below the portion of Squaw Creek that dried up.

An investigation on Monday by assistant watermaster Ed Lavelle showed that the water at the measuring gauge in town was actually from Pole Creek, Gorman said.

As soon as officials realized what had happened, they released an additional five cubic feet per second of water back into Squaw Creek upstream of the dry portion and rewatered the area, Gorman said.

A similar fish kill was documented in 1991, and officials found 35 redband trout.

The drying up of the creek in spots challenges the long-term survival of the fish, Riehle said.

”This sets the stage for low densities of fish everywhere,” he said. ”It is hard to maintain a population.”

Riehle said the situation provides an opportunity to improve communication to avoid similar conflicts in the future.

”The solution here is to really figure out what caused it and to work out a communication system to alert downstream users,” he said. ”It has to be a group effort.”

Extensive conservation work has been done in Squaw Creek to improve fish habitat in preparation for returning more native species to the area.

One of those efforts has been to establish an ”instream water right” that begins a half mile south of Sisters and runs through town. That right means the state must ensure that segment always has at least 1.8 cubic feet per second of water flowing through it.

Gorman said the portion of Squaw Creek that dried up was not part of the area with the instream water right.

Ryan Houston, executive director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, a conservation group, said the incident provides incentive to increase conservation efforts and establish more instream water rights. He called the fish kill ”disheartening.”

”This is what a number of groups are working hard to prevent,” he said.

Gorman said the state aims to avoid a similar dry up in the future and added that officials will account for the potential presence of Pole Creek water when they measure the gauges.

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