For Anglers and Conservationists Throughout Oregon and Beyond
Opal Springs Passage

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Successful anadromous fish reintroduction into the upper Deschutes basin is a large effort on the part of many and includes reconnecting habitat through fish passage, planting fish in their historical habitat to restart the lifecycle process, improved flows, and habitat restoration. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife began planting steelhead and Chinook salmon fry and smolts into the upper Deschutes Basin in 2007 in anticipation of a new facility providing fish passage around the Pelton Round Butte (PRB) hydroelectric project. That facility was a requirement of their new 50 year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Since that time nearly one million fish have been planted every year, primarily into the Crooked River, Metolius River, and Whychus Creek, a tributary of the middle Deschutes above Lake Billy Chinook. In 2014, for example, 630,000 steelhead and 300,000 Spring Chinook were planted. Thus far, adult return rates to PRB have been disappointing. The issues for this limited success are numerous and complex, but those fish who do make it past PRB face additional obstacles including lack of volitional fish passage at the Opal Springs Hydro Project, located between river mile 7 and 8 on the Crooked River, just upstream from Lake Billy Chinook. A temporary solution is in place by means of a trap-and-haul system at the Opal Springs Project, but volitional passage via a fish ladder is the preferred solution.

The 2014/2015 steelhead return year ended on May 31, 2015.  In this return year, 93 upper basin origin adult steelhad were captured in the trap at the bottom of PRB, transported up river, and released into Lake Billy Chinook.  89 of these were healthy enough to be radio tagged and 85 of these were subsequently detected at radio tracking stations.  77 of the 85 were detected at Opal Springs.  40 were passed above Opal Springs into the Crooked River via the trap-and-haul system currently in place. 

Six steelhead were detected in the middle Deschutes at the Scout Camp tracking station.  Two of these first attempted to go up the Crooked.  Three went up the Deschutes and then went to the Crooked.  Only 1 steelhead went up the Deschutes and stayed there, that fish moved up into Whychus Creek.  Nine steelhead went up the Metolius, most of these first attempted to go up the Crooked. 

These results mimic past seasons. The good news is that an improved trap at the base of Opal Springs Dam has increased the number of fish captured and transported above the dam.  The bad news is that many more fish would have moved up the river if a fish ladder was in place.

The diagram shows the fartest extent location of steelhead at the end of last season, May 31, 2015. This data remains preliminary.  (Source: PGE, Megan Hill.)

The overwhelming preference for the Crooked River by steelhead has been surprising to fish biologists.  At the beginning of the reintroduction process they believed that the middle Deschutes and its Whychus Creek tributary would be prime spawning areas for steelhead. As of the end of the 2014/2015 season, only 4 adult steelhead have one to Whychus Creek in all return years combined.  Even more surprising has been the behavior of spring Chinook. 

May 1 is the beginning of the springer return year.  As of the end of July 2015, 52 have been passed into Lake Billy Chinook, all have been radio tagged, and 25 of these have been detected at Opal Springs.  Chinook are planted in the Metolius, the middle Deschutes / Whychus Creek, and into the Crooked River / Ochoco Creek.  Typically half every year are planted in the Metolius where they historically spawned in the greatest quantities.  Once again, however, the fish have spoken and the Crooked River is a primary destination.  Unfortunately, the fish trap at the base of the dam does not seem to be effective for springers as only 8 fish has been passed above Opal Springs thus far.

Looking back, in the 2013/2014 return year 50 steelhead adults were released into Lake Billy Chinook. 48 of these fish were radio tagged and 4 of those tagged fish were not subsequently found.  The final reading showed 26 steelhead in the Crooked River river or arm of the lake.  22 were passed above Opal Springs, 8 of which made it upstream of highway 97. 16 steelhead were in the Metolius arm of the lake and some were up river.  Of those, 11 had first attempted to go up the Crooked River. No steelhead were planted in the Metolius and it is not their historical habitat. One fish was in the middle Deschutes and one was in the Deschutes arm of the lake. 

In the 2012/2013 season, 133 adult steelhead returned. 50% of those were passed into Lake Billy Chinook and 50% went to the hatchery. Thirty three of those passed into the lake were radio tagged. Of those, all but four went to the Crooked River.

The fish have spoken. They want to go up the Crooked River. It is clear that volitional fish passage at Opal Springs is currently the single most important requirement for successful reintroduction of anadromous fish into the upper Deschutes basin. The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife ranks passage at Opal Springs as the second most important fish passage project in the state, behind the Hells Canyon Dam complex.

The good news is the Deschutes Valley Water District, owner and operator of the Opal Springs Hydro Project, have embraced fish passage. They are not responsible for the reintroduction of these fish, and are not required under their existing FERC license to provide passage (their existing license expires in 2032). But they are willing to voluntarily modify their facilities to construct and operate a fish ladder and to provide other environmental benefits to improve upstream and downstream passage. They have developed engineering plans and estimate the cost to be approximately $8 million. DVWD is able and willing to pay for approximately half of this cost.

A Settlement Agreement (S.A.) was negotiated and signed between DVWD and various agencies and other groups in October, 2011 and expires in October 2015. Essentially, all terms of the S.A. have been satisfied, except the financial obligation. DVWD has committed $4M for construction, but without an additional $4M match, there is a very strong possibility volitional fish passage at Opal Springs will not be addressed until 2032.

To date, Oregon Water Enhancement Board (OWEB) has committed $1M. ODFW has made a commitment of $1.2M. Other potential sources of funding have been identified but they are reluctant to move forward without public demand for the project.

For that reason, OpalSpringsPassage.org was formed. Please help us demonstrate that successful reintroduction of anadromous fish above Lake Billy Chinook is an important project, worthy of the last $800,000. Show your support by donating now.