The Deschutes River is one of Oregon's most iconic rivers. Each year the watershed draws thousands of visitors from around the region to fish, raft and enjoy the Wild and Scenic river. Once one of the most productive wild salmon and steelhead rivers in the world, today the system is greatly diminished following a century of dam building, irrigation withdrawals and habitat degradation in key spawning tributaries. Both summer-run steelhead and spring Chinook in the Deschutes are listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and sockeye had been extinct in the basin until recently. In an ambitious effort to recover depressed and extirpated populations of wild fish in the basin, Portland General Electric (PGE) and a host of partners created a state of the art fish passage facility at the Pelton-Round Butte hydroelectric project which has been operating since 2010. The project provides access to the Crooked, Metolius, and Upper Deschutes Rivers three of the largest tributaries in the basin, and fish born in the upper watershed began returning in 2012.
However, gains made by reintroduction of steelhead, Chinook and sockeye were immediately undermined when NOAA bowed to pressure from local irrigation and development lobbies and designated the reintroduced fish a "non-essential experimental population" all but eliminating the protections afforded by their ESA listed status.
This fall Stearns Dam on the Crooked River was removed opening an additional 12 miles of high quality steelhead and chinook habitat downstream from Bowman Dam. But flow releases into the Crooked at Bowman Dam remain a fraction of their historic magnitude with the vast majority of water being diverted for federally subsidized irrigation.
Further upstream, flows in the Upper Deschutes are being managed without any consideration for salmon and trout. Every fall managers drop flow releases from Wickup Reservoir from summer time irrigation flows of over 1000 cfs to less than 50 cfs in just a few days resulting in a massive fish kill. So far little is being done to address the antiquated flow management.
With hundreds of millions of dollars invested in recovery, the Deschutes is on the brink of an unprecedented recovery. However, it remains to be seen whether Oregon's agencies and lawmakers have the political will to make it happen. Until then, the Deschutes will be tantalizingly close, but still so far from its potential.