The Heat Wave: Part 2

  By Greg McMillan

The record-breaking heat wave that has taken the Pacific Northwest and held it hostage continues.  Fortunately it looks like there is a break coming this weekend.  Temperatures are predicted to drop by ten to fifteen degrees by Sunday, July 12.  That is very good news for fish.

In the meantime, more fish have been reported to be dying in the lower Deschutes.  Dead sockeye salmon have been seen as high as 3 miles upstream from the mouth of the Deschutes.   Dead sockeye are reported to be floating by the boat ramp at Heritage Landing, at the mouth of the Deschutes.  Steve Pribyl (retired ODFW fish biologist and DRA board member), is floating the lower river and will return on July 9 and we’ll have an update on the status of the fish kill at that time.

Autopsy reports just released by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife indicate that the sockeye salmon are dying not just of heat stress, but of an infection associated with high water temperatures: columnaris.  In their press release, ODFW suggests that these fish went up the Deschutes seeking refuge from the Columbia River.

The Columbia River, like all bodies of water right now, is getting hot.  Here’s how hot:

July 2015 Columbia River water temperatures. Source: USGS online.

That means that fish are seeking refuge in any cooler water that they can.  In a cruel trick of fate, fish were probably being lured into the Deschutes from the Columbia when overnight temperatures would get down to about 68 degrees in the Deschutes.  Then the next day the Deschutes would warm up to a temperature that exceeded that of the Columbia, making the situation even worse for the fish that sought relief in the Deschutes.

July 2015 lower Deschutes River temperatures at Moody. Source: USGS online.

It’s now likely that fish, especially sockeye salmon, are dying in the Columbia.  They need cold-water refugia in the tributaries.  These might very well be Snake River sockeye salmon listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act.

Clearly fish in the lower Deschutes that aren’t dying are stressed at this point.  Anywhere the river is exceeding 70 degrees during the day the fish will be working to survive.

Meanwhile, at the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex, the dam operators continue to crank up the heat, making the lower river even warmer.  Need we say more?

July 2015 lower Deschutes River water temperatures at Madras (discharge from the Pelton-Round Butte dam complex). Source: USGS online.

These temperatures are from the Pelton Reregulation Dam tailrace.  Given how hot it is, perhaps the dam operators can’t change the temperature of the river all of the way to the mouth (although there are data showing that in some circumstances they can).  But as cold, clean water sits at the bottom of the reservoir and the lower river is gripped in a heat wave that is killing fish, it seems like it’s time to let some of that cold water go.

Until December 31, 2009, all water discharged into the lower river was from the bottom of the reservoir.  Then Portland General Electric and The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation constructed the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower to create surface currents in Lake Billy Chinook and provide temperature control for water discharged from the dam.  That temperature control is being implemented in a way that makes a bad situation worse.  We hope the dam operators begin to recognize the importance and value of the lower Deschutes River and provide cooler temperatures for the lower river.  They have cold water to use in this urgent time of need.  So use it.

This situation speaks for itself.

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