Thousands of fish die as water drops in Oregon river

BEND, Ore. — State officials are looking into why thousands of fish became stranded and died after they lowered the level of the Deschutes River southwest of Bend.

The trout, sculpin and whitefish were discovered late last week in small pools and a dried-up channel of the river, KTVZ-TV and The Bulletin newspaper reported. The Oregon Water Resources Department has been reducing flows into the Deschutes in order to build up the water supply in the Wickiup Reservoir to supply irrigation water for the next growing season, but officials said they hadn’t done anything differently from recent years.

Area resident Kim Brannock said she was jogging on a trail along the river Thursday when she saw the dead fish. She returned with her husband, daughter and a neighbor the next morning and used buckets to haul hundreds of surviving fish into the main part of the river.

“It broke my heart to see that many fish, also to see really like vibrant, really big trout, too, that just laid there and suffered,” Brannock said.

For several hours Friday, the team, along with a pair of employees from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, moved 500 to 600 fish from one shrinking pool, nearly a quarter of a mile to the main channel of the Deschutes.

More than 400 rainbow and brown trout, as well as about 1,300 sculpin and 1,300 whitefish, were found dead, said regional manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The trout ranged in size from fingerlings to mature fish of more than 20 inches.

For the last few days, the water level has been dropping on the Central Oregon river.

“At the end of irrigation season, we’ll drop reservoir outflows down to begin storing water through the storing season throughout the winter,” said Oregon Water Resources Region Manager Kyle Gorman. “Hopefully, somebody will figure out what did happen this year, as to previous years, and then find a solution so it doesn’t happen again.”

Kim Brannock, who designs fishing waders and apparel for Patagonia, said she would like to see more water left in the river — for the sake of fish and other animals in what had been a wetland.

“I can’t believe, in this community, that the water is managed like this,” Brannock said. “It’s astonishing.”

For years representatives from conservation groups, irrigation districts, state agencies, tribes and Central Oregon cities have been talking about the distribution of water on the Deschutes, said Tod Heisler, executive director for the Deschutes River Conservancy. The talks focus on who gets what — and when.

“Ultimately, what we would like is to have some kind of agreed to (higher) minimum flow year-round on that upper river,” he said.

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