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Rights of passage

Sunday, May 08, 2005

BEND -- After an absence of 40 years, salmon could return to the rivers and streams of Central Oregon by the end of the decade.

It would be the largest single salmon and steelhead reintroduction in Oregon's history -- reaching from the Ochoco Mountains to the foothills of the Cascades.

To succeed, the fish will have to overcome not only a legacy of failed salmon policies in the upper Deschutes River basin, but also the challenges of present-day politics.

"I think it's going to be a big experiment," said Jim Lichatowich, a fish biologist and author of "Salmon Without Rivers," a history of Northwest salmon. "It's a sign to me that we're starting to rethink some of those old decisions and not treat them as if they are cast in concrete."

But along with the hopes of restoring the lost fishery are the fears of farmers, ranchers and others who rely on the basin's rivers for irrigation. They're worried that the ensuing competition for water could devolve into a Klamath-style confrontation.

"This is a very explosive and dangerous situation," said Marc Thalacker, manager of the Three Sisters Irrigation District, which diverts water near Sisters from Squaw Creek, one of the streams expected to draw salmon and steelhead.

A lot is riding on the backs of the silvery fish that help define Oregon and the Northwest.

Salmon and steelhead, which spawn in fresh water but mature at sea, were once common in the upper Deschutes basin, heading upstream via the Columbia River every year to lay eggs in the network of lakes and rivers.

In the 1960s, completion of the Pelton Round Butte hydroelectric project effectively cut the fish off from 226 miles of spawning grounds in the Metolius, Crooked and Middle Deschutes rivers and their tributaries.

Today, the 465 million-watt project, jointly owned by Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, is the largest hydroelectric project wholly inside Oregon.

It consists of two large dams and a smaller one about 100 miles upstream from the confluence of the Deschutes and Columbia rivers.

At the time of construction, PGE and regulatory officials tried a series of things -- including a hatchery, an aerial salmon tram and a 2.8-mile fish ladder -- to get adult fish upstream and juvenile fish downstream, but everything failed.

By the mid-1960s, it was clear fish couldn't find their way downstream past the 440-tall Round Butte Dam west of Madras.

Then in 2001, the hydroelectric project's federal license expired. Even before then, salmon advocates discussed using the relicensing as an opportunity to restore fish passage.

Last summer, PGE and the tribes announced that as part of their proposed agreement to operate the project for the next 50 years, fish would once again pass Pelton Round Butte.

The plan centers on a 270-foot tower to be built in the reservoir behind Round Butte Dam. The $60 million "selective water withdrawal" tower will manipulate the swirling currents in Lake Billy Chinook so juvenile salmon can find their way into a collection area, where they'll be put into tanker trucks and carried downstream around the dams to head to the ocean.

"Sounds simple right? Well, it's not," said Scott Lewis, a PGE fish biologist. "It's very structurally difficult to build, and very expensive."

The tower is scheduled for completion in 2008, about the same time biologists will be planting juvenile fish in the upper basin. If all works as planned, those fish will make it to the tower, around the three dams, into the Columbia, past The Dalles and Bonneville dams and eventually into the Pacific.

After maturing in the ocean, a few lucky ones might make the return journey to the upper basin, again aided by tanker trucks, to spawn as early as 2010.


Rewards not immediate

It's an audacious plan, and no one expects more than a trickle of returning fish at first. A successful reintroduction could take decades, if it works at all, said Ryan Houston, director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council.

"It's not like someone is going to wake up one day and find these salmon in their backyard," he said.

Houston's group is one of many preparing for the salmon's return. On a recent day, he joined others in a tour of Camp Polk Meadow along Squaw Creek, a 145-acre site owned by the Deschutes Basin Land Trust.

Some of the best spawning habitat in the entire basin was in this meadow, where the creek cut a slow, serpentine path. After a flood in 1964, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers confined the creek in a riprap raceway on the edge of the meadow.

While that was good for flood protection, it made poor fish habitat. But by then the fish were mostly extinct in Squaw Creek because of the dams.

Now that they're coming back, the land trust, working with Houston's group and the U.S. Forest Service, wants to lift the creek out of its ditch and return it to the meadow, about 10 feet above.

"Then the natural functions of the system take over," said Louis Wasniewski, a Forest Service hydrologist working with the land trust.

The restoration project is expected to cost close to a $1 million, but it's only one of many under way, some on Squaw Creek.

Historically, 42 percent of the steelhead that made it to the upper Deschutes basin spawned in Squaw Creek. But today, much of the 38-mile-long creek fails federal Clean Water Act standards because of high water temperatures. There is also widespread stream bank erosion.

Federal protection possible

But if and when those fish do get here, they'll likely bring with them the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

That's because last summer the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service, the federal agency responsible for salmon, proposed listing Deschutes River hatchery stock of steelhead as threatened.

Those are the same fish that will be planted in the upper basin. A decision is expected on the listing this June.

The steelhead's protected status is important because fish aren't the only ones that use Squaw Creek. For more than 100 years, much of the creek's flow has watered pastureland for livestock or irrigated crops around Sisters during the summer.

The same is true for the Crooked River to the east, where protected steelhead are also expected to go. The majority of both streams aren't currently home to any endangered or threatened fish.

That has water users fearing the same farmers-vs.-fish showdowns that have wreaked emotional and economic havoc on other Northwest basins, from the Methow to the Klamath.

Thalacker of the Three Sisters district said groups in the basin have traditionally worked together to solve river problems, but a single lawsuit could upset all that.

"And a lot of my farmers take this very seriously. They are saying, 'You are scaring us,' " he said.

Last month, in a warehouse in Prineville, the Crooked River Watershed Council held the first public meeting on the reintroduction and its implications for the region.

After sitting through presentations by state, federal, tribal and PGE officials, about a dozen of the 100 or so people gathered questioned the wisdom of spending so much money and effort on a potentially divisive idea.

"In dry water years, with a threatened species and irrigators, who loses?" asked Glen Hudspeth of the Crook County Soil and Water Conservation District. The answer, given by NOAA fisheries biologist Scott Carlon, left few satisfied.

"We're not expecting it to be a real issue of conflict," he said. "Sometimes we cross those bridges when we come to them."

Matthew Preusch: 541-382-2006; preusch@bendbroadband.com


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