Kim Brannock was running along the Deschutes River Trail on an October afternoon in 2013 when she saw them: fish. Hundreds of dead and dying fish, in a side channel of the Deschutes. She couldn't stand by and do nothing, so she organized a bucket brigade to move the remaining fish to the main channel. Central Oregonians are fortunate Brannock passed by when she did, and that she had the professional connections and knowledge she could use to save fish and raise awareness of this perennial problem. She resists the spotlight, saying, "It's not about me. It's about the river."
Brannock had moved to Bend from Portland two months earlier. She didn't understand why the Deschutes was dropping by the hour, stranding fish. Now she knows, and she wants others to understand the issues facing Bend's iconic river.
Since then, the annual fish salvage has become a coordinated effort by the Coalition for the Deschutes, Deschutes River Conservancy, Trout Unlimited's Bend chapter, Central Oregon Irrigation District and many volunteers. COID has funded the effort for the past two years.
What Brannock witnessed in 2013 had been going on for decades. Before the Deschutes River was dammed in the 1940s, its flows were remarkably steady due to the springs that feed the river. Today, those steady flows are disrupted by dams built for irrigation. During the winter, water is stored in Wickiup Reservoir for summer irrigation, creating extremely low flows. Summer flows are very high because farmers need that water. Closing Wickiup's spillways in October, at the end of the summer irrigation season, causes a drastic reduction in Deschutes River water volume. Side channels are suddenly dewatered, stranding the fish. Many Bendites never notice, because those fish carcasses are almost completely gone within 24 hours.
Brannock, a freelance apparel designer who's worked with Patagonia on its fly fishing line, spent much of her rural Washington childhood on rivers. She says she and Gail Snyder, her Coalition for the Deschutes co-founder, make a perfect team, because "Gail brings the legislative and environmental background I didn't have, but I have deep connections in the outdoor industry and the creative side." Brannock wants to see the Deschutes' flows stabilized at a level in which "the life that has left this river returns, and people can see the real magic."
Deschutes River Conservancy
While the Coalition for the Deschutes' mission is simply to be "the voice of the river," Deschutes River Conservancy's mission is broader. Bea Armstrong, development and communications director, described the Conservancy's decades-long work collaborating with stakeholders to solve river issues. The number of stakeholders is staggering and includes federal and state agencies, tribes, irrigation districts, cities and towns, conservation groups, industry and private property owners. Armstrong emphasized that solving the river's problems is complex. She says that all the parties involved in the Conservancy's collaborative efforts "agree on the value of a healthy river, and all are passionate about this work. To have a forum where everyone comes together to have a conversation about water management is incredible. We don't always agree. Setting a table for hearing each other's concerns creates a sense of hope that we will solve this river management problem." And the stakeholders are making progress. Winter flows in the Deschutes this year are higher than they've been for decades— though still not high enough to prevent stranded fish.
Mike Tripp, board member of Bend's Trout Unlimited Chapter and fish rescuer, has this final thought: "Though there is value in the community working together to rescue stranded fish, the fish salvage is a symptom of a bigger management problem. The real solution for these fish lies in the implementation of a large-scale restoration plan for the upper Deschutes River."