Steelhead in the Crooked

While not a Crooked River Steelhead, this photo represents what anglers dream of when then search for them.

While not a Crooked River Steelhead, this photo represents what anglers dream of when then search for them.

Steelhead are swimming in the Crooked River after an absence of 50 years.

These magnificent ESA listed fish are a product of the remarkably complex salmon- steelhead reintroduction project undertaken by Portland General Electric and the Warm Springs Tribes as a condition of re-licensure of the Pelton and Round Butte hydropower facility at Lake Billy Chinook. Reaching the ultimate goal of a wild steelhead run however will depend on the efforts of many stakeholders.

The Lower Crooked River has a rich history dating to the establishment of Prineville as the first settlement of Central Oregon in 1868. The visions for settlement and economic growth of the 19th and 20th centuries were successful in achieving those goals. They culminated in the dam building era of the mid-20th century, but unfortunately the extirpation of Chinook and Steelhead runs in the Crooked River resulted. Here is a PDF of the Lower Crooked River Assessment published in 2008 and provided by the Crooked River Watershed Council which contains some very interesting historical data.

Commendably current basin stakeholders are working on multiple fronts to restore the Crooked River and its fish and wildlife:

    • The Crooked River Watershed Council: Projects including upland juniper thinning to improve groundwater flows, restoration on private lands on McKay Creek, and removal of essentially all but one fish passage barrier on the lower Crooked: the Opal Springs Dam. You can read more about the Connecting Waters project and viewing the short film prepared by them on YouTube.
    • Crooked Rive Jobs and Securities Act: After decades of negotiations, passage of the Bowman Dam legislation in December of 2014 was possible because of the collaborative work by many stakeholders. This legislation allows use of the uncontracted waters of Prineville Reservoir, which could be up to 55,000 acre-feet in good water years, for the benefit of fish. It also provides for minimum instream flows, increased instream flows via mitigation by the City of Prineville, a mechanism for moving McKay Creek irrigators off of McKay Creek flows, participation of Ochoco Irrigation District in conservation projects that can contribute to instream flows, potential hydropower development at Bowman Dam, and a drought management plan provision.
    • The City of Prineville: Constructing a model wetlands project that will input 2 million gallons per day of cool and clean groundwater into the mainstream Crooked.
    • Crook County Soil and Water Conservation District: Completed restoration projects on private lands on Ochoco Creek below Ochoco Dam.
    • The US Forest Service: Ongoing restoration work in the headwaters of McKay Creek.
    • Central Oregon Irrigation and North Unit Irrigation Districts: Contributed to improved summer flows in the lower Crooked through their “North Unit Project”.
    • The Deschutes Valley Water District has voluntarily undertaken work to ensure fish passage at Opal Springs Dam under a settlement agreement negotiated with the assistance of Trout Unlimited and multiple agencies.

This year (as of April 8), 90 steelhead have been passed into Lake Billy Chinook. Many entered the Crooked River arm of LBC, 64 were radio tracked at Opal Springs, located between river mile 7 and 8. 40 steelhead have been trap and hauled over the Opal Springs diversion as of this writing and are being tracked in McKay and Ochoco Creeks, as well as the mainstem of the Crooked River.

These represent a tiny percent of the hatchery stock fry and smolts planted since 2008 (native Mid-Columbia summer run steelhead are not available for this effort because they are ESA listed) and represent an incredibly valuable genetic group.  The need is clear: we need to see all of the returning steelhead spawn in the Crooked and volitional passage is required to satisfy that need.

Establishing a wild run from this stock will require success of all of the above projects. The last barrier for volitional passage into the lower Crooked system is Opal Springs dam; the trap and haul option has proven to be sub-optimal. All need to applaud the voluntary actions of DVWD in tackling what ODFW has identified has effectively their top priority fish passage project in the state. Read more about the history of the DVWD here.

To bring DVWD’s work to completion, matching funds are needed. Help this great community of Crooked River stakeholders realize their goal of a restored wild steelhead run in the Crooked.