Thousands of fish now lie dead on the banks of the Upper Deschutes, stranded after the Oregon Water Resources Department reverted to extremely low winter flow rates last week.
Perhaps worse, no laws were broken—current water management policies allow for such low flows, which in this case resulted in the death of approximately 3,000 brown trout, redband trout, whitefish and sculpin. Furthermore, experts say that fish kills similar to what happened last week in a small side channel near Meadow Camp have happened before and likely will again, unless significant policy changes are enacted.
Here's why: Water allocations and release schedules at Wickiup Reservoir, put into place in the early part of the 20th century, have long favored farmers who require water for irrigation. During the warm months the Water Resources Department's watermaster releases so much water that up to 1,800 cubic feet per second flow through Bend, enough to satiate the farmers and their fields, while providing fish with a healthy river habitat. But come mid-October the demand for irrigation is nil and the water coming out of Wikiup—the water that feeds the once mighty Deschutes River—is all but cutoff, leaving thousands of fish, quite literally, high and dry.
This year, though, the massive fish kill that followed the reduced winter flows was especially severe.
"We have policies that allow for this to exist," laments Tod Heisler, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy. "The state of Oregon has over-appropriated our water for 100 years," he adds, noting that water management is dominated by irrigation demands with little regard for the ecosystem. "We still suffer from that."
Heisler points out that what happened last week is not abnormal and that in the 10 years he has been in Bend at least half of the winters have been marked by extremely low flows, a result of hot spring and summer months and a perceived need to store water in Wickiup. No one seems to know why so many fish died as a result of this season's reduced flows—especially since in years past winter flows have been as low or lower than they are now—but Heisler says that he has heard anecdotal stories of similar such circumstances.
For Kyle Gorman, the Water Resources Department's south central regional manager, however, the case is fairly cut and dry.
"It's all based on the water rights, its very prescriptive," he says of how water is released from Wickiup Reservoir.
It's Gorman's job to follow the prescribed release schedules that hinge on the area's senior water rights—rights that date back to 1913 and allow for flows as low as 20 cfs (as of press time Water Resources Department was releasing 32 cfs). Last winter the watermaster released 300 cfs, but this year, with reservoir levels low, the Water Resources Department has been more conservative. The balancing act, Gorman says, is to keep enough water in the reservoir so that spring and summer irrigation demands can be met while also providing the river with enough water so as maintain a healthy habitat.
Clearly, the process needs retooling.
At least one group, however, is seeking a change to how water in the high desert is managed. Heisler is part of the Basin Study Work Group, a broad consortium of conservationists, farmers, state employees and other stakeholders who are working toward a sensible solution—one to appease the agricultural community but also respect wildlife, as well as a burgeoning tourism industry that relies on a healthy river.
Still, a fix is a long way off. And, in the meantime, there seems to be no plan in place for damage control. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife was late to the scene, though a few officials did help with fish rescue efforts. Some advocates are calling on the state agency to ask for an emergency water release to bring levels up to a more sustainable level. The fear is that when the temperatures drop and the shallow waters start to freeze, more fish may be left to die on the icy shoals.
With little reaction from any of the state agencies, community members initiated the only known recovery efforts that have yet occurred. Late last week a handful of concerned citizens partnered with volunteers from the Deschutes River Conservancy to transport surviving fish from the small side channel near Meadow Camp to the Deschutes' main channel. It wasn't easy. Each trip the volunteers had to cross over the sharp and rocky grounds of Lava Island, all with buckets full of water and rescued fish.
Still, their heroic efforts could not undo the outdated policies and gross mismanagement that resulted in a horrific blow to river habitat.
"What happened there in the last 48 hours is a travesty," writes Jeff Perin, owner of the Fly Fisher's Place in Sisters, in an email. "It will have impact on fish populations for years to come. In addition, the impact to recreation, fishing and tourist driven dollars to our area will be felt for a long time. It is all so sad."