Volunteers struggle to rescue fish trapped in puddles along the dwindling channel of the Deschutes River amid low flows caused by irrigation reservoirs.
KTVZ news in Bend, Oregon recently covered a story of a Life or Death Struggle on the Deschutes River, where Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials, alongside the help of volunteers, are conducting what has become an act of near futility to save a dwindling population of fish at risk from the low flows of water from reservoirs built to help irrigate water to farms in the area.
To complicate the irrigation situation, drought has prevented the reservoirs from storing enough water, so the flows have decreased even more during dry events.
The shriveling river beds expose areas of trapped water outside the flows of the mainstem, which corral young fish into puddles of certain death as they slowly dry up without intervention.
“We salvage as many fish as we can out of the side channel and put them back into the main stem,” Assistant District Fish Biologist Erik Moberly told KTVZ. This is the third year in a row that this event of salvaging and relocating fish has taken place, and the problem seems to be getting progressively more difficult to manage.
October marks an end to the irrigation season and a beginning of reserving water for the next season. “That generally means taking the flows from about 1,000 feet per cubic second, to depending on the water year, down to the minimum of 20 cubic feet per second,” said Deschutes Basin Watermaster Jeremy Giffin. Flows that are usually drawn down in a matter of several weeks have been changed to a matter of several days.
Central Oregon Irrigation District General Manager Craig Horrell told News Channel 21 he knows it’s a big problem, and a contentious issue. In above-average rain and snow years, Horrell said, the fish are fine. But lately it’s been nothing but drought, which leads into the call for a fish rescue.
“We have lawsuits against us,” Horrell said. “It’s our operations, and it’s drought. We have a workgroup dedicated to finding solutions.” Time and money are necessary to make irrigation efforts more efficient. Horrell also said several irrigation districts, including COI, are interested in taking over fish salvage efforts that are currently managed by ODFW. “We’ve helped schedule those efforts,” Horrell said. “We would love to do (the rescues).”
Meanwhile, biologists and volunteers managed to save more than 7,000 trout, whitefish and sculpin, but just a few hundred yards away there are pools filled with hundreds of dead and dying fish.
“It’s disappointing,” said volunteer Gabe Parr. “It’s disappointing, knowing that it can be prevented and that we’re smarter than this.” Gabe Parr is an active volunteer with the Oregon Council of Trout Unlimited, as well as the founder of a project he calls the “Trout Bus.” He says the concept of the trout bus is “to hit the road and use photos/video/writing to create a broader awareness of the local issues that our communities face when it comes to conservation of our resources, the successes that occur, and the collaboration it takes to succeed.”
“What we’re doing is not a long-term solution,” Moberly said. “The Deschutes is currently managed for irrigation. They want to hold water back for the next irrigation season, and the fish lose.” Unfortunately, ODFW manages fish and wildlife, not water flow or irrigation management, and has little control over the flows.
Acknowledging that there’s simply not enough volunteers to save all the fish, Moberly says, “We can’t salvage all of them. There’s many more side channels and oxbows upstream where fish are dying.”
However, Gabe Parr has led the way to organize a group of volunteers dedicated to this annual rescue effort along the Deschutes. A few excerpts from his troutbus website blog really put into perspective the kind of manpower this operation takes, and the inspiration of his project to fuel others to be involved in the process of conserving their fisheries.
“This issue has persisted since we decided to put in place the dams which feed our high desert climate. Without getting too much into the specifics and history at this time, I would instead like to speak about the people who have come to feel the same as I do about the Deschutes.
“They bring perspectives and experience to help save fish and are becoming greater stewards for our community. Beyond just raising concerns in advocacy, these friends are pushing forward with education outreach programs to foster stewardship and camaraderie. The Bend Casting Club is what we call ourselves.
“I decided years ago to build something outside the traditional notion of “conservation group”. The Bend Casting Club is much more than that. Over the past few years this group has come together annually to document and carry fish from drying side channels of the Deschutes back into the main channel. The act of saving these fish has bonded them and is something I hoped would happen.
“My hope is that in sharing their story and mine, some of you out there will start planting those seeds. Starting your own movement with your peers toward stewardship and camaraderie.”
Hopefully this rescue story will inspire others to get their feet wet and become active in conservation efforts in your community.