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A Fish Ladder at Newport Dam: It's Time for Collaboration

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Give that fish a ladder!
  • Give that fish a ladder!

In a few weeks' time, a new fish passage at the North Canal Dam, near the Riverhouse on the Deschutes in Bend, will be open. The effort is a collaboration between the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, (UDWC) and the North Unit, Swalley and Central Oregon Irrigation Districts, costing stakeholders about $1.6 million, according to Ryan Houston, executive director of UDWC.

With the opening of that fish passage this spring, all but one of the nine dams that stretch from the headwaters of the Deschutes River to Lake Billy Chinook include some sort of fish passage, says Houston. The last one without a fish passage? You guessed it: the Newport Dam—the one, built in 1910, that Pacific Power nearly sold last year. The dam that powers about 200 homes and holds back the murky, mucky waters of Mirror Pond—that bastion of all things quaint and historic and befuddling in downtown Bend.

In the case of the North Canal dam, Houston points to the collaboration among stakeholders as the source of their success—an albeit expensive effort that benefits the native fish, including the Redband trout, that populate the sections of the Deschutes near Bend. Above Mirror Pond and below it, however, fish populations still don't mix.

"Those fish populations are fundamentally isolated from one another given that there's a dam in the middle that doesn't have passage," Houston told the Source Weekly. "The idea is to connect these populations and have more genetic diversity that makes stronger, more healthy fish populations."

As it stands today, any upgrades to the Newport Dam would likely include the requirement for a fish passage—but for now, there are no legal or regulatory triggers that compel Pacific Power to make any changes at the dam. Its permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are in place. The dam's sale is no longer imminent, and no Endangered Species Act threats appear on the horizon, either.

Were Pacific Power to sell the dam or to change it in some way, that could trigger required changes—and that, of course, would be expensive. Removing the dam and letting the river flow free—as has been the preferred solution of this editorial board for years—would come with badly needed riverbank restoration, and a shift in public perception about the visage of the river from downtown.

Bendites have become accustomed to this annual battle between the pro-pond folks and what's best for Mother Nature. But as we have seen with the construction of the North Canal fish passage, it is possible to assemble a team of stakeholders with seemingly divergent views, and to get them to work together for a common purpose—even when it's expensive.

Pacific Power representative Ry Schwark told us Tuesday the company has no current plans to install a fish ladder at the Newport Dam.

But if company leaders were willing to come to the table to discuss the issue as one of a cadre of stakeholders, we posit that the company would find support—both financial and moral—for this endeavor. Whether it's a free-flowing river or a fish passage, there are willing participants out here, waiting for reasonable solutions to come to the table.

The question of the future of Mirror Pond and its dam should not be Bend's perennial rhetorical question, never answered.


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