The release of warm, nutrient laden water from the Pelton Round Butte hydroelectric project continues to cause harm to the lower Deschutes and aquatic life. For nearly 13 years, the regulatory agencies – Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) – have ignored daily water quality violations that put aquatic life at risk. These agencies need to fulfil their duty to the public and enforce the clean water laws of the state. They should be working for a vibrant and healthy fishery.
The most recent evidence of a lack of enforcement is in the photo above. Walleye continue to spend time in the lower Deschutes River with the one in the photo being caught near river mile 6 on July 12, 2022. In 2015, quite a few walleye were caught in the lower Deschutes. Every year since they have been seen in the river but never one of this size or this far up river. A fish this size at this location is concerning.
The lower Deschutes River historically has been cooler than the Columbia River and has provided refuge for fish migrating up the Columbia. The warmer, nutrient laden water being released from the dams has warmed the entire length of the lower Deschutes. Walleye were not known to be in the lower Deschutes prior to these changes and are now drawn to the warmer waters in the Deschutes. This summer, the gage at Moody (the mouth of the lower Deschutes) as read warmer than the gage at The Dalles Dam (on the Columbia) since early May until the end of July.
Walleye, of course, are not native to the Northwest and are known to be voracious predators (the big teeth serve them well!) feed on whatever small fish are available. There are a number of fish species available in the lower Deschutes for walleye to prey on including juvenile wild summer steelhead. Juvenile summer steelhead are virtually indistinguishable from juvenile resident redband trout except by sophisticated genetic testing or otolith microchemistry so the small trout-like fish that a walleye has in its stomach may very well be a wild summer steelhead juvenile.
Having an effective, non-native, invasive predator in the lower Deschutes is completely counter productive to our collective goal of a healthy run of wild summer steelhead (and other anadromous fish). Wild summer steelhead in the lower Deschutes, as we are all painfully aware, have been in significant decline for a number of years. The decreasing runs of wild steelhead in the lower Deschutes reached such a crisis proportion last year that sport fishing for them was closed for the first time since 1979 and remains closed until August 15, 2022.
ODFW and DEQ need to step up and protect the lower Deschutes River. It is their duty to the public to protect and preserve this wild and scenic river.