A Thirst for Water: Salmon, steelhead struggle for life in Bear Creek

A Thirst for Water: Salmon, steelhead struggle for life in Bear Creek
Salmon, steelhead struggle for life in parts of drought-stricken Bear Creek
By Mark Freeman
Mail Tribune

June 8, 2014

Juvenile salmon and steelhead attempt to jump up small waterfalls and riffles to escape a warm and oxygen-depleted Bear Creek in Medford. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

Juvenile salmon and steelhead attempt to jump up small waterfalls and riffles to escape a warm and oxygen-depleted Bear Creek in Medford. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

Tiny juvenile chinook salmon and steelhead take turns jumping up a concrete lip spanning Bear Creek in an increasingly futile effort to get out of downtown Medford before it’s too late.

Normally, they would be finning down the creek and into the Rogue River for their final few months of freshwater rearing before heading to sea.

But a combination of severe drought and early irrigation withdrawals has the creek running at one-fifth its normal flow in downtown Medford, trapping thousands of young salmon and steelhead in a stretch that is too warm and oxygen-depleted for their survival.

All week, they’ve been trying to swim upstream to escape the heat, but they find flows too low for success.

“Instinctively, when the temperatures go up, they head upstream,” says Pete Samarin, a fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “They might just know there’s something wrong and need to get out.”

A bucket brigade of sorts was hastily called this weekend to give the struggling juveniles a hand.

Volunteers joined ODFW biologists Saturday in salvaging a few hundred young salmon and steelhead, including threatened wild coho salmon, from the creek’s downtown stretch and hauling them to safer upstream waters, sparing them from a creek where water law and fish-protection measures couldn’t save them.

Minimum-flow requirements to spare infant salmon from these types of circumstances have been enacted at key diversions from the creek’s headwaters downstream to Phoenix. But a technicality keeps them from being in place in downtown Medford below the Rogue River Valley Irrigation District’s diversion — the upper end of a six-mile stretch of Bear Creek that’s turned deadly for migrating fish.

Oregon water law would allow the district to suck the creek dry if it chose to. But it’s siphoning only a little more than half its legal water right — just enough to keep its canals flowing and still send some down the concrete fish ladder to offer a chance of passage around the district’s temporary dam.

“They’re within their legal rights,” Jackson County Watermaster Travis Kelly says. “What they’re doing is trying to make the best of a bad situation.

“There’s no scapegoat in this whole scenario,” he says.

Saturday’s effort is likely the first of many tactics that will be employed this summer to help wild salmon survive the impacts of severe drought on streams like Bear Creek that are heavily taxed by irrigation withdrawals.

“If we’re having these kinds of issues in early June, what’s July and August going to be like?” said Ken Phippen, regional manager of NOAA-Fisheries in Roseburg.

Bear Creek is a major spawning and rearing sub-basin of the Rogue, yet its water woes run deep. The basin on its own does not produce much flow in the summer. The creek is formed at the confluence of Emigrant and Neil creeks, but together they were flowing this week at less than 5 cubic feet per second.

Bear Creek’s flows are heavily augmented by Emigrant Lake releases for summer irrigators, who line up for their water based on the age of their rights.

Oregon law dictates that the oldest water rights get first draw, getting all their water before lands with younger rights get any.

The RRVID’s right to withdraw up to 43.5 cfs dates to 1913, older than the Talent and Medford irrigation districts’ water rights, so it gets all its water before the younger districts, even though RRVID has the lowest diversion in the system.

Under normal years, that’s not much of an issue. But with low tributary flows this year, flows in downtown Medford just upstream of the RRVID diversion were down this past week to 20 cfs — far beneath the 110 cfs average flow for early June.

RRVID Manager Brian Hampton says he was withdrawing enough water to keep about 2 cfs flowing down the diversion’s fish ladder to keep the creek flowing. But he believes upstream irrigators with older water rights than the district’s began irrigating their lands, causing the stream flow to drop and the fish ladder to dry up.

“Everybody was like, whoa, what just happened?” Hampton says.

RRVID ordered some of its stored Emigrant Lake water to be released, and by Friday the flows were back up to 25 cfs in downtown Medford, with water flowing in the ladder.

But downstream, the creek pools remain shallow, scorched by the sun and cut off from each other. The basalt lip beneath the Fourth Street bridge pooled the creek flow, with the only movement being water gurgling underground.

Samarin and other ODFW biologists on Saturday netted hundreds of young fish in these stagnant pools, where water temperatures eclipsed 70 degrees.

“There’s not enough water for them to get out,” ODFW biologist Jay Doino says. “It’s scary.”

TID and MID diversions have minimum flows required just below them under an agreement between the federal Bureau of Reclamation and NOAA-Fisheries. But the RRVID owns its diversion, and the agreement between those two agencies does not apply to it, so the district is not bound to provide a constant minimum flow there, Phippen says.

Despite no requirement, Hampton says he tries to keep 10 percent of his take headed down the ladder for fish passage.

The creek stretch from the RRVID diversion gets no infusion of extra water until Jackson Creek flows into it.

“So that’s definitely the hardest-hit stretch in Bear Creek, from the Jackson Street bridge to the mouth of Jackson Creek,” Kelly says.

“There’s a really high demand on a very finite resource,” Kelly says.

The RRVID’s Hampton says he hopes his use of the district’s stored water released from Emigrant Creek will keep Bear Creek stable in downtown Medford. Other streams, and their wild salmon, that can’t rely on stored water won’t be so lucky.

“It’s not just Bear Creek,” Hampton says. “It’s everywhere, and it’s not even hot yet. It’s scary.”