By BROOKE SNAVELY
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS
This year’s fish rescue near Lava Island Falls was a four-day affair, twice previous year’s efforts with more expertise and 100 volunteers, the most ever.
“Before this channel disconnected, we were out here with electro-shockers, just gently letting the fish know ‘I don’t want to be on this side. I want to start pushing that way,'” said Lisa Windom, North Unit Irrigation District Special Projects Manager. “We started upstream and just walked down the channel. We largely had our professionals do this. We tried to push the fish downstream so that they naturally returned to the larger Deschutes on their own.”
The theory was by herding the fish downstream out of the side channel and back into the main river, the ensuing rescue would find fewer stranded fish.
But that turned out to not be the case.
“Sounds like you hit the jackpot on this one hole.”
“Yeah. there’s a lot of fish in here,” said Ben Briscoe, a Mt. Hood Environmental employee hired to operate electroshocking equipment.
“What’s your guess?”
“I would guess we probably got 600, 700 fish out of here. Maybe a little more.”
During the second half of the rescue, volunteers scooped fish stranded in remnant pools and placed them in aerated buckets.
Another group of volunteers carried the buckets nearly a mile over rough terrain to a counting station.
“What we do is as soon as the fish arrive here, the fish get transported from one bucket to another. We are counting species,” Sean Coleman, Coalition for the Deschutes. “We are looking at rainbow trout, brown trout, sculpin, stickleback. If there’s any non-native fish, we humanely deposit those fish.”
After counting, the fish were released back into the main channel of the Deschutes River.
“It’s a great thing they do every year. I’ve always wanted to be a part of it. I always seem to find out about it after the fact. I managed to get on the list of notifications,” said David Able, fish rescue volunteer. “We’ve gotten maybe a couple of thousand fish out of this little hole today.”
Coordinating a fish rescue from a mile-long stretch of side channel takes months of planning.
During the event, managers used radios to move volunteers and resources around to reduce the amount of time fish spent in buckets.
“I can send one person up to the top if that would be helpful.”
“Only if you have too many. We are down a person here on the top group. We just need to replace that bucket carrier.”
“Okay. I’ll see if we can spare one person to go up there.”
“Great. Thank you”
“I found this rescue to be a great starting point,” Windom said. “Not only are there a lot of partners helping the irrigation districts to improve water management such as piping open canals, water leasing, water marketing, on-farm efficiency improvements. We have a lot of partners working together and working towards a way so that the water is balanced so that this channel can stay connected year-round.”
Keeping this side channel connected will require about 500 cubic feet per second of year-round flows.
For decades, river flows have been reduced far below that level to store water in Wickiup Reservoir for ensuing irrigation seasons.
“We know the long-term goal is try to put more water into that side channel. It’s a beautiful section, a thriving section and it supports quite a bit of macro invertebrate life and a significant amount of biology,” Coleman said. “But, if in the meantime, if there is an opportunity to get in there with the community to save some fish before the end goal, why not take advantage of that?”
“These solutions need to be longer term and thus there need to be more voices, so get involved. Vote for people who are supporting policies that move water conservation to the next level,” said Samantha Bango, a shared intern between North Unit Irrigation District and Coalition for the Deschutes. “Yeah, I’m very optimistic about our future in the Deschutes Basin.”