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Lack of snowpack creates concerns for streams, fish


Drinking water not likely to be an issue

Snowpack on Mount Hood, which is at 8 percent of what has been recorded as normal, has locals worrying about what it means for the future. POST PHOTO: KYLIE WRAY - The Bull Run Rivers low flow forced ODFW to move its intake pipeline for its Bull Run acclimation pond further into the river.

So far, authorities say it is too early in the year for the low amount of snow to be a concern to most people — skiers excluded.

But the low snowpack hasn’t just had an impact on businesses and snow sports enthusiasts who haven’t gotten much use out of their equipment. The lack of snow on the mountain also has affected the flow of local rivers, which in turn affects their residents: the fish.

No reason to panic — yet

The question that tends to be on everyone’s mind when it comes to low amounts of snowpack is, “Will we have enough drinking water?”POST PHOTO: KYLIE WRAY - Matt Lackey, Sandy broodstock program coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, helped install the Bull Run Acclimation pond five years ago.

Jaymee Cuti, public information officer for the Portland Water Bureau, says yes.

The Bull Run Watershed, where much of the Portland area gets its water, is a low-elevation watershed that doesn’t depend on snowpack for water supply.

“Drinking water is actually supplied by spring rains,” Cuti said.

Laura Pramuk, public affairs officer for Mt. Hood National Forest, said rainfall in the forest has been at a normal level so far this year. The problem hindering snowpack has been temperature.

According to the National Weather Service’s Feb. 7 Water Supply Outlook, winter temperatures were considerably higher than normal for Oregon in December and January.

Although Pramuk said it is difficult to predict what the weather will do next, she anticipates rain won’t be an issue.

“Generally, this part of the country has a pretty wet spring,” she said.

Low stream flow may impact fish

Employees at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Fisheries Division, however, are already hoping and praying for more rain. CONTRIBUTED GRAPHIC: NATURAL RESOURCES CONSERVATION SERVICE - This map shows that the snow pack in the Hood, Sandy and Lower Deschutes area is 8 percent of the median amount recorded between 1981 and 2010.

Because snow is just stored water, with a low amount of snow, cumulative water flow in rivers and streams is already suffering.

“With no snow, there is little water, creating low stream flow conditions,” said Brad Goehring, fisheries program manager for Mt. Hood National Forest. “The precipitation that has occurred, has fallen as rain and quickly flowed out of the mountains and has not been stored.”

Todd Alsbury, district fish biologist for the fish and wildlife department’s North Willamette Watershed District, said the department is mostly concerned because extremely low water flow — combined with hot temperatures — is a danger to fish.

“We’re seeing flows right now that we would typically see in the end of spring,” Alsbury said. “It’s really snowpack that we need to have a prolonged flow through summer.”

Hatcheries and ponds used by the ODFW are already affected by the low flows.

During the last week of February, Alsbury said district personnel were forced to rethink the setup for an acclimation pond along the Bull Run River.

Down below the decommissioned Bull Run Powerhouse on Bull Run Road, a man-made pond is constantly picking up water from the river. POST PHOTO: KYLIE WRAY - The Bull Run Acclimation Facility is being used for spring chinook salmon from Bonneville Hatchery to imprint on the Bull Run River water before being released.

The pond, which is used as an acclimation facility for young fish about to be released, holds 66,500 spring chinook salmon from the Bonneville Fish Hatchery. Following their three week stay in the acclimation facility, the fish will be released directly into Bull Run.

The acclimation pond full of water from the nearby river allows fish to “imprint” on the water.

“The idea is that they will be more likely to return to that water,” said Matt Lackey, the district’s Sandy broodstock program coordinator. Because of extremely low water flow, ODFW workers on Thursday, Feb. 26, were forced to move the pond’s intake pipeline about 10 feet out into the river.

“It seems to fluctuate so much daily,” Lackey said.

Future flow concerns

Low flow also is causing issues with other ODFW ponds.

Alsbury said if the conditions continue, the district may have to look into drastic measures in the spring.

In addition to sending out teams to help fish that may become isolated due to low stream flow, the department may also have to restrict fishing by closing specific areas or closing the season early.POST PHOTO: KYLIE WRAY - The intake pipeline is constantly cycling Bull Run River water through the acclimation pond. When released, salmon will enter the river through the outflow pipeline.

“If it’s causing harm, it’s certainly something we would consider doing,” he said.

For now, people need to be aware of how their actions may impact the river.

“People need to be very, very careful around the river at all times,” Alsbury said.

To avoid disturbing the fish, he discourages industrial- or construction-oriented activity around the river during low-flow periods.GRAPHIC BY JOSH BRADLEY - Data from USGS show that stream flow as of Feb. 25, is far below the normal level, and is the lowest it has been at this time of year for the last 10 years.

If anyone comes across a possible problem with low flows affecting fish, Alsbury encourages contacting the fisheries division at 503-947-6200 so personnel can see what can be done.