It seemed the river would remain a fantastic world-class fishery forever. However, the Northwest is in the throes of an effort to get anadromous fish runs re-established above the region’s many lakes and reservoirs. A noble effort, it has found success in many other systems. It was assumed the same thing could be done for the Deschutes.... But it hasn’t worked out that way.


Matt Mendes prepares to release a fine wild steelhead back into the Deschutes River. Mendes fishes the river where it passes through tribal lands, and he reports that anglers fishing lower down are struggling with the changes more than himself. Spin the Handle Guide Service image.


In 1965 the 440-foot tall Round Butte Dam was completed on the Deschutes River. The structure formed Lake Billy Chinook. The dam was built with power generation capabilities, as well as a fish ladder. Initially it was thought that the dam would be able to pass adult salmon and steelhead, and there would be good runs of anadromous fish returning to the two main tributaries, the Metolius and Crooked rivers, as well as the upper Deschutes.

However, the rivers are as different as night and day. The Crooked River drains agricultural fields and farms, whereas the Metolius pulses through a forested canyon. The later river runs very cold; the Crooked River carries warmer water and is heavy with farmland runoff.

When the juvenile salmon and steelhead migrated into the lake from the tributaries the cold water formed a temperature barrier, and they were unable to find the lake’s outlet. For over 40 years It was assumed that the impoundment would not support upstream anadromy.

Cold water coming off the deepest part of the lake was released into the lower 100 miles of the Deschutes River. The cold, highly oxygenated water created a worldclass fishery for steelhead and redband rainbow trout. Fed on the glut of cold-water insects the river produced, it was a prodigious banquet for the trout and young steelhead, and they grew fat and strong on the feast.

The river was known for insect hatches that would explode, sending clouds of mayflies, stoneflies, and others into the surrounding river valley, and feeding the hungry fish, as well as swallows and other birds. The river became known for fat, football-shaped trout that would readily feed on the surface. The river’s excellent run of steelhead was joined every summer by steelhead that were bound for upper Columbia tributaries, seeking cold water refuge from the tepid Columbia River.

It became legendary, a fisherman’s paradise. Fly anglers and others from across the globe came to test their gear, and their arms, on the incredible fishing.

It seemed the river would remain a fantastic world-class fishery forever. However, the Northwest is in the throes of an effort to get anadromous fish runs re-established above the region’s many lakes and reservoirs. A noble effort, it has found success in many other systems. It was assumed the same thing could be done for the Deschutes.

But it hasn’t worked out that way.

Portland General Electric, (PGE), and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs embarked on an ambitious and expensive plan to reintroduce salmon and steelhead above the Round Butte Dam. Their fix for the temperature barrier in Lake Billy Chinook was the Selective Water Withdrawal tower, (SWW). It pulls warm water from the lake’s surface to mix with colder water from the bottom. The discharge that emerges from the dam is a warmer blend of surface water and deep water, or, at times, straight surface water, which is the discharge of the Crooked River.





The project was approved as part of the relicensing agreement for the dam in 2007. By 2009 the first releases of mixed water began.

It was then that anglers, guides, and conservationists started to see troubling signs within the lower Deschutes. Insect hatches started to change in timing, and some quickly began to shrink. Algal growth increased and spread. Black spot disease became prevalent in the river’s native trout, and steelhead runs were delayed during the early summer months.

Worse, the insect populations began shifting more toward snails and worms, instead of cold-water species.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the project has been its dismal failure over the last 13 years to accomplish its primary goal: the reintroduction of anadromy above the dam. Returns have been pathetic, with less than one hundred sockeye returning in most years, and other species faring even worse.

Fishermen, guides, and biologists first went to PGE with their concerns, but the company did not seem willing to listen. A group of concerned citizens decided that it was time to form an organized effort to try to convince PGE to return the river to a healthier pattern. It was then that the Deschutes River Alliance, (DRA), was formed. Sarah Cloud, the DRA’s executive director, explains how the group was started.

“Folks that were using the river on a regular basis, fishing guides, anglers and what not, were noticing some drastic changes in the water quality,” said Cloud. “The hatches weren’t normal, and the rocks were a lot more slippery. They were noticing negative changes in the river and wanted to find out why.”

The Alliance was lucky to have several scientists, including Rick Hafele, Larry Marxer, and former ODFW biologist, Steve Pryble. These people lent the alliance their expertise, and the group began to collect water quality data that revealed the extent of the problem. They approached PGE with their findings.

“We got stonewalled,” said Cloud.

The issues noted by the DRA’s research include, water temperatures and dissolved oxygen in the lower river exceeding the Clean Water Act standards, almost daily during the summer. Nutrient loads leading to an increase in algae, which in turn caused changes to the river’s PH. Benthic invertebrate hatch times shifted, with an increase in snails and worms, indicators of warm, dirtier water. A correlating decrease in those invertebrates, such as mayflies and stoneflies, that indicate clean, cold water. Black spot disease proliferated in the river’s redband trout.





Other by-products of the changing water regimen were non-native smallmouth bass, a predator of young salmon and steelhead, moving further up into the Deschutes. They are now found 12 miles upriver. There has also been a notable decrease in swallows and other birds that feed on aquatic insects.

Rick Hafele is an aquatic entomologist and an internationally known fly-fishing author, speaker, and photographer. As he observed the changes, he became alarmed, and agreed to join the DRA to see if they could help bring attention to the problems in the lower river.

He agrees with Cloud’s assessment. The DRA was repeatedly blown off by PGE.

“They think things are going along well,“ said Hafele. “They don’t want to make changes, that’s for sure. The tribes are involved and that complicates things. The tribe is really adamant, and for good reason. They want the reintroduction to succeed.”

“Some tribal members are not happy, but the leadership doesn’t seem to want to buy into that.”

Tribal member Matt Mendes is the owner of Spin The Handle, a fly-fishing guide service that operates in the Warm Springs Tribal section of the Deschutes River. He has some concerns about what is happening in the lower river, although he sees the situation as much as a political dilemma, and not just a river health issue.

“It’s a political and controversial issue,” said Mendes. “It’s definitely changed the river. About one in three trout have that black spot disease.”

Mendes feels the issue is more difficult for guides fishing further downriver.

“It really hasn’t affected me so much,” he said. “I think a lot of the lower river guides, that fish down around the mouth and the lower river, are more affected by it.”

He explains that steelhead entering the river in early summer do not tarry in the lower sections like they used to. They seem to be bolting right through the river to the upper sections, where the water is colder.

“They aren’t going to hang out down there when the water is about 70 degrees,” he said.

When contacted, PGE declined an invitation for an interview for this story, and instead insisted on a written questionnaire. It was the first time this reporter has been denied an interview after almost 25 years of writing about the outdoors.

In their email response to the questions, Allison Dobscha, the senior communications consultant for PGE, contends that the cold water of the lower river before the SWW impeded development of juvenile salmon and steelhead, and this resulted in smaller juveniles with a lesser chance of survival.






This might come as a surprise to anglers that have fished the river for decades, and enjoyed the robust returns of steelhead to the Deschutes.

Hafele reports PGE has never offered any data to back up that particular claim.

Steelhead numbers in the Columbia basin are down across the board, and that may be the reason for smaller returns now, but it is obvious that the colder water did not negatively affect the survival of the steelhead smolts in past years.

They also dismissed the data presented to them by the DRA as not being peer reviewed, yet it is unclear how PGE’s science has been vetted. The DRA has many scientists with serious chops in these matters, as well as an intimate knowledge of the river.

Per PGE: “Anecdotal reports and outside ‘studies’ claiming to prove the river is in trouble typically have not gone through a rigorous, independent review process. Scientifically sound studies are reviewed by other independent scientists to ensure their integrity. PGE, the Tribes, ODFW and other partner agencies routinely submit their work for this kind of scrutiny.”

Once again, though, no data has been released to back up that claim.

“PGE has never, ever included any actual data to explain why the data we cite is incorrect,” wrote Hafele in an email response. “They just say the negative comments are made by “ a few vocal detractors of the reintroduction program.”

“Note that the DRA has never said we’re against the reintroduction program. We support the goal, but the approach be-ing used isn’t working and it’s harming the lower Deschutes in the process.”

As for concerns about the changes within the river, PGE pretty much passes that off, too. “We respectfully disagree with their overall interpretation of the state of the river and the fish.”

Yet Hafele said many of the changes are not minimal.

While the scientists at the DRA have documented the notable changes in populations of benthic invertebrates, PGE asserts that there have been no serious changes to the insect populations within the basin.


A beautiful redband trout landed in the lower Deschutes River. The changes in the benthic invertebrate community have shifted the timing of hatches that feed the river’s trout. Spin the Handle Guide Service image.


In 2019, a study was commissioned by PGE to look at water quality. That study was found to have some flaws, but is still a good study, according to the DRA scientists. The study proposed a few changes to the selective water operations, but PGE has resisted even those changes. They still are adamant that the current program is working just fine.

When asked about the nutrient loads and poor water quality of the Crooked River water being drawn into the lower river, these concerns were dismissed by PGE because of the active habitat improvements being made in the Crooked River Basin. However, habitat improvements are unlikely to reduce the farm runoff that is thought to increase the issues with algal growth, and cannot change the agricultural nature of the Crooked River Valley.

The DRA has amassed a large cache of water quality measurements and data, clearly showing the degraded state of the lower Deschutes, with which it has tried to get the Department of Environmental Quality, (DEQ) to act on. That agency has been reluctant to do its duty and do something about the lower river’s condition, and the fact that it violates the Clean Water Act. Their excuses have been that the new operating plan for the agency has not yet been completed, even though that process has been ongoing for years.

According to Cloud, that agency and PGE have been operating under an interim agreement as far as water quality, even after a stakeholder group had produced a plan for the monitoring of the river. That agreement has been sidestepped by the interim agreement which was not produced with any stakeholder input.

“We had a very public process, with many stakeholders involved,” said Cloud. “Now we have a program made with back-room deals by PGE.”





While PGE touts its “adaptive management,” Hafele points to emails the DRA received through a public records request.

“Here’s an example of how they are using adaptive management,” said Hafele. “We have emails obtained through public records request between PGE and DEQ that shows back in 2013 PGE asked DEQ to change the dissolved oxygen (DO) requirements in their permit from year-round spawning DO limits (which are more strict than non-spawning DO requirements) to only apply from Oct 15-June 15, because they had to spill water at the re-regulation dam (and thus not run it through the turbines and make the money from the power) when DO dropped below the required level in the summer. DEQ happily agreed without any vetting from ODFW or public notice of the change as required.”

A lawsuit was brought by the DRA to force the DEQ to do its job and compel PGE to act on the water quality issues, but the lawsuit was dismissed. However, it was dismissed because of “tribal sovereignty,” not because the science was wrong.

“The Deschutes River Alliance (DRA) is unhappy with this decision, and believes the case should be judged on the merits of the science,” said Cloud.

PGE also touts its new ability to collect and pass downstream juveniles from the upper systems, with over 1.6 million young fished passed over the years. They point to this as success. However, with so many outbound juveniles, the fact remains that returns do not reflect a successful program. Returns of the different species over the past few years are dismal.





In other systems with a reintroduction program there has been a corelating increase between out-migrating young, and returning adults. For whatever arguments PGE makes in its defense, this is the data set that matters most, since the entire program is supposed to generate returning adults to “seed” the upper tributaries of Lake Billy Chinook, as well as provide fish for the Warm Springs Tribe.

When asked, PGE disputed the theory that poor water quality in the lower river, which the young must pass through, may be a reason for poor adult returns. They point to ocean conditions as a possible factor in the poor returns, even as other systems have seen quite an uptick in returning adults in recent years.

“DEQ’s own water quality data collection on the lower Deschutes River at Warm Springs shows an immediate decline in water quality following the start of tower operations in late 2009,” said Hafele.” It’s not climate change folks.”

“Although they are passing more juveniles, they aren’t getting many fish back. Something is not working.” Said Cloud.

There are still other troublesome issues within the lower river that can be traced to the new water regimen, but space does not permit referencing all of these. For more information about this, you can watch the “State of the Lower Deschutes River” presentation by DRA:



There are also reports and data analysis available on the DRA website at:

Cloud admits the river is still a world-class fishery, and many anglers that did not know the Deschutes as it once was feel the fishing is very good. However, fishermen that remember what it was like before the changes know that it isn’t what it used to be. Cloud and others believe that any-one with an interest in clean waters and healthy fisheries in Oregon need to stand up and be heard.

“I just cannot stress enough that if you love our rivers, if you love our fish, you need to get involved with this process,” she said.

Guided fly-fishing trips: Matt Mendes, Spin the Handle, (541) 460-1411,



EDITORS NOTE: The normally decade-long solar cycle has run it's course, the Big "Green" North Pacific has cooled and the Columbia steelhead run for 2024 appears to be shaping up quite well. How will the Deschutes River temperatures effect the total number of steelhead that enter the lower river is yet to be seen?






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1 comment

Terry Otto’s recent piece on the Deschutes River, its fish, and how the system has been altered under competing demands is an outstanding piece of writing.

Dennis Dauble

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