A thorny challenge on the Deschutes River

In Oregon by Nick Chambers

Trout Unlimited is working to ensure the success of the Pelton-Round Butte Fish Passage Program and conservation of lower River angling opportunity


If you’re a trout or steelhead angler in Oregon, you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with issues related to fish passage and native fish on the Deschutes River. Trout Unlimited has been working for the past several years to help resolve these issues, and improve recovery of key salmon and steelhead runs while conserving the diverse angling opportunities found on this famous river.


Construction of the Pelton-Round Butte (PRB) Dam complex (Project) in the 1960s completely blocked anadromous (sea-run) fish passage to the upper Deschutes Basin. Early attempts at enabling fish passage past the PRB Project failed and were replaced with hatchery programs intended to mitigate for the loss of upper river habitat. In 2004, a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) settlement agreement for the relicensing of the PRB Project was reached between a broad group of stakeholders, including Trout Unlimited, to implement a fish passage program, improve water quality conditions and restore fish habitat, both above and below the dams, as part of the Project’s new FERC license.


The new juvenile collection facility can be seen on the right side of this photo


Recovery of imperiled fish species is one of the highest priorities for fisheries managers. On rivers like the Deschutes, Snake, and Klamath, where once-prodigious runs of wild salmon and steelhead are now tiny fractions of their former numbers, managers struggle with a delicate balancing act between provision of angling opportunity and species recovery. There is no easy way around this challenge.


In an attempt to address this challenge and others, the settlement aims to restore access for native salmon, steelhead and lamprey back into historical habitats and reconnect fragmented populations of native bull and redband trout while providing increased harvest and fishing opportunity as runs recover.  The goals of the settlement are admirable and reflect significant investments from many different stakeholders.
In 2011, the fish passage program was initiated and has had mixed success. Salmon, steelhead, and bull trout are currently being transported around the dam complex and are making their way up three tributaries—the upper Deschutes, Metolius, and Crooked Rivers. However, the return numbers are significantly below those required to achieve the settlement’s goal of ecosystem integrity and self-sustaining, harvestable runs of Chinook, steelhead, and sockeye. A new structure, the Selective Water Withdrawal (SWW), has not been as effective as hoped at attracting fish to the collection facility. Additionally, the PRB Project has struggled at times to meet water quality objectives established as part of the relicensing process.


The upshot is many guides and anglers feel that the work to restore anadromous fish passage above PRB is shorting the fishery, and native fish populations, below the Project for the uncertain prospect of bringing back salmon and steelhead to their historic habitats in the upper watershed.


The left maxillary clip and intact adipose fin identifies this steelhead as most likely being from the reintroduction program.


TU and the angler-community associated with our Wild Steelhead Initiative, Wild Steelheaders United, strongly support recovery of imperiled salmonid species, and we believe the vast majority of anglers do as well. The PRB fish passage program is complex and must be given adequate time to work through technical issues and to utilize adaptive management to address real-time challenges. Understandably, many anglers are concerned about the changes observed in the lower river, including reduction of benthic macroinvertebrate populations, changes in timing and duration of insect hatches, as well as an increased incidence of small mouth bass and black spot disease.


TU and Wild Steelheaders United share these concerns. Proactive steps must be taken to ensure that the health and fishery of the lower river are not compromised while the Project moves forward.
Two primary issues threaten the long-term viability of the PRB fish passage program:

  1. The adaptive management program—a core strategy for virtually all large-scale resource management challenges—has never been developed with sufficient detail to ensure a properly functioning feedback loop.
  2. Uncertainty regarding the effects of water quality changes in the lower Deschutes River on biological resources, and the extent to which those changes are attributable to the Project, has nurtured an argument that fish passage can only occur at the expense of downstream biological resources (e.g. macroinvertebrate populations and native trout).


TU is working through our Wild Steelhead Initiative and other channels to address these concerns. For one, we are engaging through the Fish Committee on potential solutions. (The Fish Committee is a group that PRB Licensees must “consult with” prior to making certain operational and/or fish passage program changes. TU and four other non-governmental organization signatory groups hold one collective seat on the Committee.) TU will continue to work in this forum to articulate realistic science-based objectives, timelines and milestones, and to implement the actions required to achieve them, to meet settlement goals (ecosystem integrity and self-sustaining harvestable/fishable populations).
TU will continue to advocate for a proactive approach to managing the lower River. Specifically, we anticipate requesting operational changes based in part on information derived from a forthcoming water quality study. TU provided input into the development of a water quality model that will be released in mid-2018—the results should help clarify the extent of the PRB Project’s impacts on the lower River and whether management changes will positively affect water quality parameters. TU is also exploring the possibility of further studies on the health of the biological resources in the lower River.


In addition, TU and other conservation partners recently met with the office of Oregon Governor Brown to request assistance in ensuring that the PRB Project meets water quality objectives and provides opportunities for public participation in any efforts to modify existing water quality objectives.



Finally, we are working to reduce the impact of a primary source of the water quality challenges in the lower Deschutes: The Crooked River. The operation of the Selective Water Withdrawal has resulted in more nutrient-laden Crooked River water entering the lower River. TU is exploring potential projects with willing landowners to modify habitat to “filter” runoff before it enters the Crooked River.


Trout Unlimited is optimistic that, ultimately, we can meet PRB Project goals for both fish reintroduction and water quality. However, this will require constructive engagement and information sharing from stakeholders—including the angling community—inside and outside of the settlement. TU is committed to succeeding in the challenge of designing and supporting solutions for the Deschutes River based on the best available science and legal requirements. And we invite anglers to help us do so in ways that conserve fishing opportunity and traditions.


For additional information or discussion please contact Chandra Ferrari, Senior Policy Advisor, at cferrari@tu.org.