A project designed to improve fish habitat on Tumalo Creek resulted in an unintended fish kill over the weekend.
It’s not clear how many fish were killed when a crew working with the Tumalo Irrigation District dramatically cut back flows on the already meager Tumalo Creek downstream from Shevlin Park where the district pulls most of the water for its customers. However, local attorney Bill Buchanan said he saw several fish stranded in the dry creek that died over weekend. Buchanan, who has emerged as the most vocal, opponent of the city’s proposed surface water project upstream from Shevlin Park, took two of the fish home in a cooler as evidence of the event. Buchanan who regularly jogs along the lower section of the creek on the outskirts of Bend said he noticed the problem on Saturday. At that time he said the creek was running about four inches deep, just enough to cover his running shoe, when it emerged from a temporary diversion pipe through the construction area. He estimated that the volume was equivalent to about 1 cubic foot per second. Less than ten-percent of the flow required by law in the lower river. By Sunday the flow had increased slightly, but was still well below the seasonal norm. Buchanan said his own observations were backed up by a Trout Unlimited volunteer who used a five gallon bucket to measure the flow as it emerged from the temporary pipe below the project.
Longtime Tumalo Irrigation District Manager Elmer McDaniels said the district had permission from the Water Resources Department Department of State Lands and the Department of Fish and Wildlife to reduce the flow on the creek to five cfs through the construction zone, which he estimated to cover about 125 feet of the river. McDaniels said crews were out this morning attempting to adjust the flow to hit the five-cfs target, but said that isn’t easy to do because of natural fluctuations in streamflow. Contrary to what Buchanan observed, McDaniel’s said that the state’s water gauge showed that the flow didn’t dip below 3.5 cubic feet per second. While that isn’t enough water to sustain resident fish in that section, McDaniels said that ODFW had organized volunteers to capture and transport fish out of the de-watered area. McDaniels said that the logistics of the construction project made it necessary for the district to reduce the flow so dramatically. However, he said that the district was also using overflow valves on the canal system to return roughly 10 cfs to the creek roughly one-quarter mile below the construction project.
Buchanan said the incident should highlight the need to carefully evaluate projects that impact the fragile section of creek below Shevlin Park. It’s an area where the state and federal government along with the irrigation district have invested millions in water conservation projects aimed at boosting summer flows that support native fish. In the past two decades those flows have increased more than five fold. The implications stretch beyond the short section of Tumalo Creek below. The stream also serves as a cold water injection for the Middle Deschutes below Bend where the river doesn’t meet state temperature standards.
Experts have yet to quantify just what impact a few hundred gallons of cold water have on the Middle Deschutes which runs at about ten times the volume of Tumalo Creek. However, one state expert said earlier this year at a public meeting that it shouldn’t be discounted.
And while it appears there is some disagreement as to exactly how low the flow dropped over the weekend, Buchanan emphasized it was something that had to be seen to be appreciated.
“The fact that you can measure the flow of Tumalo Creek with a stopwatch and a five gallon bucket tells you there isn’t much coming through there,” he said.
Photo: Bill Buchanan