Smolt (young steelhead salmon) are released into Whychus Creek. Photo: Ryder Redfield.

Returning Salmon and Steelhead Fish Update

Sep 20, 2019 by Jana Hemphill
Get your update on returning salmon and steelhead fish in the Deschutes River region.

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By Brad Chalfant

With near record low salmon and steelhead returns across the Columbia River region, the upper Deschutes River offers an encouraging note. In late June, Portland General Electric (PGE) and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs announced that returns of adult Chinook salmon saw a small but significant jump in the percentage of returning Chinook that originated from the upper Deschutes River region.

Of particular interest, the most recent radio tracking reflected a bump in the number of Chinook finding their way home to restored sections of Whychus Creek. At last report, we have at least nine Chinook in and around Land Trust protected lands on Whychus Creek. Our hopes are high that we’ll see spawning redds this season. Though one season isn’t a trend, the previously reported increases in successful downstream juvenile fish passage and this recent uptick in returning adults leaves us hopeful that our work and that of our partners is beginning to show results.

In mid-July, PGE and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs hosted their annual two day Deschutes Fisheries Conference--bringing researchers, agencies, nonprofits, and fish advocates together to share recent research and restoration. While there was a lot of information shared, here are some of the highlights:

  • Restoring fish passage and the reintroduction of historic salmon and steelhead runs is extraordinarily complex. It involved a great deal of experimenting, learning, and adapting. Recently, fisheries managers and the nonprofits comprising the Pelton Round-Butte “Fish Committee” have produced a reintroduction roadmap that describes how managers intend to adaptively manage the reintroduction of salmon and steelhead. It can be found here.
  • A comprehensive water quality study identified that poor water quality in the Crooked River is showing up in the lower Deschutes River (below the Pelton-Round Butte Hydro-electric project). Agricultural practices were identified as likely contributing significant levels of nitrates in the Crooked River. At the same time, all three tributaries (including the Metolius River) are naturally high in phosphorous, which when combined with higher stream temperatures, has contributed to water quality issues, including algae blooms in Lake Billy Chinook.
  • Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife reported that lower Deschutes redband trout were doing well, despite concerns among some groups about dam operations. The Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife has been conducting annual fish surveys of the lower Deschutes River region for decades, providing an important reference point.
  • Adult salmon and steelhead returns were forecast to be near record lows, despite increases in the number of outbound smolt (young salmon). The low returns were largely attributed to extremely poor ocean conditions; fish runs are down across the Pacific Northwest.
  • US Fish & Wildlife Service reported that they expect basin irrigators to submit their Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for public comment by late September. It’s important to note that the public comment period has been shortened to 45 days. The HCP is largely perceived as dealing with the stretch of the Deschutes River between Wickiup Reservoir and Bend. However, the plan, once adopted, will determine streamflows and other mitigation for a much larger area, including Whychus Creek and the Crooked River, for the next 40 or so years. It appears the HCP would cap streamflow on Whychus Creek at 31.8cfs, which could hamper efforts to get more water instream and to lower stream temperatures to meet the needs of salmon and steelhead.

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