Draining Oregon: State Pours Million Into Fifteenmile Creek but Fails to Help Steelhead for Lack of Water

By Kelly House  |  Aug. 26, 2016  |  The Oregonian: Draining Oregon

Government agencies have spent more than $2.8 million in taxpayer money on this tiny Columbia River tributary since 2004. Workers have planted shade willows on the banks, lined its rocky bottom with logpile hiding places, and fenced off cattle from the sensitive habitat.

There’s just one element missing in the quest to restore Fifteenmile Creek’s threatened steelhead — water.

Area irrigators own rights to siphon more water from Fifteenmile Creek than mountain snowmelt and high-elevation springs can provide, draining it to a string of puddles each summer.

Scientists believe the water shortage has contorted the very life cycle of federally protected steelhead in Fifteenmile, forcing them into unnatural spawning patterns that routinely kill them.

Now, high-powered wells may be draining the basin further, from below.

“We don’t have a good handle on it at this time, but certainly there is that feeling that everything is connected,” said Shilah Olson, who manages the local watershed council.

Regulators with the Oregon Water Resources Department granted landowners permission to pump the area’s underground water without first closely studying its relationship with the creek. Then people’s well water levels started dropping. The agency put the brakes on new groundwater permits in 2011.

But water resources officials say they need to do more research on whether Fifteenmile has too many wells, or if water levels in certain wells are declining because they were poorly constructed. Until they find out more, they hesitate to limit existing groundwater rights.

“We take those actions cautiously,” said Doug Woodcock, deputy director of the agency. “We want to make sure we got it right.”

The problems in the Fifteenmile Watershed are part of a much broader pattern across the state, The Oregonian has found. Oregon regulators have given away rights to so much underground water that irrigators in several basins are drawing down aquifers, threatening future economic disruption and posing dangers to plants and wildlife.

It could be years before state scientists can say whether wells are robbing the creek of water. Meanwhile, fish keep dying. Only 424 made it upstream last year in a system that should support an annual run of up to 2,638 spawning adults, according to data compiled by the local soil and water conservation district.

Across the rolling hills south of The Dalles, farmers who rely on groundwater are also watching with trepidation as the state studies the problem.

“This isn’t sustainable, what we’re doing now,” said Tim Dahle, who grows pears and cherries west of Dufur. “We have to improve what we’re doing or we’ll come to resemble California.”

A Contorted Life Cycle

Fed by rain and snowmelt in cooler months, Fifteenmile Creek tumbles down 54 miles from the mountains east of Mount Hood before emptying into the Columbia River just upstream of The Dalles.

By summer, springs originating high in the Cascades are the main source of Fifteenmile’s dwindling flow. Irrigation diversions along the way further sap the creek.

Scientists used to think steelhead spawning in Fifteenmile and its tributaries were the Columbia River’s easternmost run of winter steelhead.

It turns out that assumption is probably wrong, and the confusion had everything to do with the creek’s disappearing water.

Steelhead spend two or more years in the ocean before returning to the stream of their birth to spawn. Biologists designate the fish summer-run or winter-run based on the season they’re biologically programmed to arrive home.

Fifteenmile Creek’s steelhead reach their spawning grounds between November and April, seemingly a textbook winter-run. But biologists discovered something strange when they began implanting these migratory fish with electronic tags that track movement.

Many Fifteenmile fish made a tentative trip home much earlier, in July or August when the stream is bone dry and unswimmable in parts. Government scientists now hypothesize that these aren’t winter steelhead at all, but summer fish forced by humans to adopt a winter lifestyle.

The tags showed Fifteenmile steelhead essentially killing time during the inhospitable summer months. They overshot the creek, climbed The Dalles Dam fish ladder and continued up the Columbia River to the Deschutes.

Some even made it past an additional dam, the John Day, before turning back. Some made the round trip more than once before winter rains made the creek passable.

These unforeseen delays in migration pose numerous hazards to steelhead. Passage downstream through The Dalles Dam is impossible for fish in certain months without a swim through grinding turbines. The prolonged stay in the Columbia also exposes Fifteenmile steelhead to fishermen’s hooks and predators’ talons for a longer period.

The journey kills about half of all migrating Fifteenmile steelhead, according to research from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Bonneville Power Administration.

Even if adults survive to spawn, their offspring face additional perils in Fifteenmile’s hot, scarce water.

The tiny young fish, called fry, emerge from the gravel by early summer and then spend two years in a stream that regularly goes dry or heats up beyond a steelhead’s preferred sub-60 temperatures. One stretch never dipped below 70 for two straight weeks last year, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife data. The hottest water hit 83.

“You’re talking about temperatures that are capable of just outright killing fish,” said John McMillan, a science director for Trout Unlimited. “If temperatures are consistently that warm, it doesn’t bode well for the future of fish in those places.”

Before humans altered the watershed, a 2004 study found, each egg’s chances of surviving long enough to exit the creek would have been closer to one in four.

Last year, fewer than one in 50 smolts made it out alive.

Rod French, a district fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, estimates that mass die-offs of juvenile steelhead happen yearly. But because most of the land abutting Fifteenmile is private, they’re rarely documented.

French’s job involves protecting fish in Fifteenmile and nearby streams. It’s made more difficult by the focus on planting greenery instead of addressing the creek’s glaring, human-caused water shortage.

“To be honest, it’s frustrating,” he said. “It’s fairly obvious that fish need water, and it’s the lacking component in this recovery effort.”

Increased Demand, Ignored Warnings

So scarce is water in the Dufur Valley, whose slopes drain into Fifteenmile Creek, only landowners who hold 155-year-old sur- face water rights were able to collect their full allotment last summer. Many farmers settle for growing dryland wheat, using rain alone to nurture their fields.

But in recent years, wells have cropped up across the valley as The Dalles’ orchard and vineyard economy moved inland, converting dryland wheat fields to thirstier, more lucrative cherries and grapes. Cherries can bring $10,000 per acre, four times the going price for dryland wheat.

“They’re certainly profitable in a good year, and this is a really great climate for growing them,” said the local watershed council’s Olson.

Acreage of irrigated agriculture in Wasco County nearly doubled between 1997 and 2012, much of it concentrated in the Dufur Valley. The number of wells that officials allowed in the Fifteenmile Creek Basin skyrocketed.

State regulators had many reasons to doubt the Fifiteenmile ecosystem could withstand the new withdrawals of water.

Unlike the Willamette Valley’s gravel aquifers, underground water in the Fifteenmile Creek basin is held in Columbia River Basalt, a highly impervious rock formed millions of years ago by lava flows. Local rainfall doesn’t penetrate easily. The water below seeps its way into rock fissures laterally, across vast distances.

Columbia River Basalt bounces back slowly when wells are sunk into it. Groundwater losses during the 1950s forced areawide restric- tions on new wells in The Dalles, where Fif- teenmile enters the Columbia. Sixteen miles to the west in Mosier, studies have found wells drawing from the basalt aquifer are sapping Mosier Creek.

“It’s the same thing you see in other areas where people pull from the Columbia Basalts,” said Robert Wood, the Wasco County watermaster. “It’s deep water, and it seems like there’s a lot of it. But then we start to see declines.”

Only two long-term observation wells existed, but their data suggested even limited pumping in the valley before the 1990s was taking a toll.

One, by the creek just west of Dufur, was so packed with water in 1979 that it exerted 95 feet of upward pressure. By the late 1990s, half the pressure was gone.

The other, three miles upstream at Ramsey Creek, dropped 30 feet from its 1962 level. Fifteenmile Creek is visibly connected to what lies beneath, virtually disappearing underground in some stretches, while swelling up with springwater in others.

Such springs can be a lifeline for fish in overheated streams, offering a rare source of cool, flowing water in the height of the irrigation season. Tapping an aquifer joined to the creek would be practically the same as pumping from the creek itself.

Documents show state employees who reviewed applications to use groundwater warned repeatedly that new wells could bring problems.

Nine times reviewers noted that the under- ground water source a landowner hoped to tap was likely connected to Fifteenmile Creek or a tributary. In three of those cases, regulators went further, saying that pumping would likely cause harm.

Yet in all of Wasco County, where Fifteenmile is located, water resources officials rejected none of the 70 permit applications the agency reviewed between 1996 and 2011.

Today, irrigators in the Fifteenmile basin and surrounding drainages are entitled to draw 15 billion gallons annually, agency data show. That’s 50 percent more water than precipitation sends back to the water table, according to a 1968 estimate of the area’s groundwater supply by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Only in 2011 did the Oregon Water Resources Department stop granting new groundwater permits along Fifteenmile and its tributaries.

Ivan Gall, the agency’s field services administrator, said officials didn’t have robust enough data to stop approving wells any sooner. Two observation wells did not provide adequate coverage.

“At the location of a new application, you may not have any site-specific information,” he said. “Knowing about a decline eight miles away may not be that helpful.”

The Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries is two years into a study to map the area’s subsurface. The water agency will use that information to test whether wells are draining the water table and Fifteenmile Creek.
Woodcock wouldn’t comment on what his agency will do if the answer is yes.

“We’ll take a look at the study and see if, in fact, we can confirm there is an impact there before we go and speculate on what it means for adjacent waterholders,” he said.

Conclusive information about the impact of wells on the creek and its steelhead, the agency says, could be years away.

“Band-Aids” for Fish

Robert Bissonette, a 60-year- old retired teacher who grew up on Fifteenmile Creek, remembers the days when an angler could bring home a full creel after an hour on the water.

The creek of Bissonette’s childhood was by no means an ecosystem untouched by human activity. But all manner of fish were far more abundant.

“The water was so clear you could see where the fish would be hanging out and where the lamprey were coming up,” he said.

Now, recreational steelhead fishing is banned.

The creek looks prettier with all the money taxpayers have poured into restoring fish habitat, Bissonette said, but until regulators restore the water, “you’re just putting Band-Aids on something that needs a whole systemic rebuilding. And the wells have to be included.” Every government agency working to save Fifteenmile steelhead has acknowledged irrigation is a major barrier to success. Yet none has forced a clampdown.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, in a 2005 document outlining the creek’s violations of the federal Clean Water Act, said water scarcity was a key culprit.

“Increased instream flow, where depleted, will ultimately be needed” to cool the stream to acceptable temperatures, regulators wrote.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration each repeated the message in subsequent documents addressing the obligation to restore Fifteenmile steelhead under state and federal Endangered Species Acts.

After a major die-off of steelhead in the creek’s hot, shallow water in 2009, federal investigators told area irrigators they could be charged criminally if the deaths continued.

Yet agencies with authority under federal environmental laws make changes that would bolster state law is of little help. Senior water users can legally drain streams dry.

Since the 2009 fish die-off, some irrigators who draw directly from the surface of Fifteenmile Creek have agreed to forgo pumping on hot days in exchange for payments from The Freshwater Trust, an environmental group.

The possibility that well owners are simply sumping the water back out from below is “definitely an issue that’s on our radar,” said Caylin Barter, who oversees The Freshwater Trust’s program to revive Fifteenmile. “It’s on everyone’s radar out there.”

A federal status review released in December indicates Fifteenmile’s steelhead are worse off today than they were a decade ago, when they were listed as threatened.

The failed recovery effort left Bissonette, the fisherman, disillusioned and dejected.

Tired of Oregon’s unwillingness to take on irrigators around Fifteenmile Creek, he packed up and moved to Alaska.

This special video component to The Oregonian’s story on Fifteenmile Creek was posted on Aug. 26, 2016, the same day this article appeared as part of The Oregonian’s Draining Oregon series.