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Boaters' Lament

Low river flows abound—a bummer for recreationalists and ecology alike

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As soon as we left the bank, sharky rocks were biting at our oars on every side. A scrape here, a drag there. With each contact to a textured slice of iceberg granite, the 30-year worn hyperline on my royal blue Momentum raft, "Wonder Woman," stuck. Rock dodging at its finest. Ground truthing 1,000 cubic feet per second on the North Fork John Day was way more difficult than I'd imagined. 

Coming around each blind corner into a newly formed low-water boulder garden, you were just as well choosing a line with your eyes closed, because there were no clean lines offered. After the terraced whiplash hit in sections that dropped quickly in elevation, one would marvel that their raft hadn't popped yet. 

Rock ho! As river levels continue to sink, spotting clean lines can be a tricky challenge. - K.M. COLLINS
  • K.M. Collins
  • Rock ho! As river levels continue to sink, spotting clean lines can be a tricky challenge.

Between four and five times I found myself high-centered on a black rock that I hadn't seen among the 50 other downstream rocks when choosing a line. I would have to leave my captain's seat and the oars unattended, choosing an opposing corner of the raft and hanging off the perimeter line, violently bouncing, all in the hopes of freeing the stuck corner and re-entering the current. 

When we took off the water three days after launch, it had fallen to un-raftable levels, according to Soggy Sneakers, 752 cfs (the floor is 800 cfs). 

River levels are dropping out fast. I've been watching the Grand Ronde River levels for a couple weeks through American Whitewater in the hopes of a mid-week boater's escape. Each successive week numbers have fallen 1,000 cfs or so. Currently, she's holding around 1,600 cfs with a floor of 1,000 cfs (for boatability). 

Meanwhile, amid an unprecedented heat wave, like an oasis in the desert, locals flock to the towny corridor of the Deschutes River to swim, float or cool off in the pristine easily accessible water. But for how long will this be an option? Presently, flows are holding with a release rate of 1,500 cfs. However, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which measures the storage reservoirs in the Deschutes River Basin, Wikiup Reservoir is at 18% capacity. Its backup cache, Crescent Lake, is at 27%. You do the math. 

Wondering how much melt water might still be in the works to fill up our beloved rivers? The National Resource Conservation Service published a report earlier this year mapping out snow melt prospects. According to their estimates, all the snow reserves hit net zero July 1.

"Wickiup is getting extremely low," notes Kyle Gorman, region manager for the Oregon Resources Department. "It has set all-time low conditions since the start of the water year back in October and will likely be nearly empty in August sometime."

To help with this shortfall, according to the Habitat Management Plan, Crane Prairie Reservoir can be drawn down about 12,000 acre-feet beginning on July 5, and maybe drawn down up to an additional 5,000 acre feet to help with shoreline vegetation management. 

"With the increased flow from Crane into Wickiup, that will help with water levels somewhat, but we are anticipating that it will be nearly empty sometime in August. However, this year, the plan is to leave a little water in Wickiup to prevent the sedimentation that occurred last year in the Deschutes River," explains Gorman.

In addition, Gorman shared that irrigation districts have reduced their diversions across the board this year to save water and extend supplies to the junior districts. As a consequence, the flows in the Big Eddy reach of the Deschutes River have been well below average all summer.  

Renee Patrick, of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, Oregon Desert Trail developer, pack-rafter and thru hiker extraordinaire, was at the put-in back in early June when I was boating the North Fork of the John Day (the aforementioned trip). She planned to take the rest of June and paddle the river entirely to its Columbia River outlet. In a social media post near the completion of her journey, Patrick noted levels at 313 cfs and described it as "scrap-a-licius." Boaters beware. 

About The Author

K.M. Collins

A native Oregonian, K.M. Collins is a geologist-gone-writer. Covering everything outdoors and a spectrum of journalism, she's a jack of all whitewater sports and her favorite beat is anything river related. Don't blow her cover as a freshwater mermaid amongst humans.

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