Recurring drought conditions in central Oregon in recent years has had a significant impact on water levels in Wickiup Reservoir. In 2018 the reservoir was completely drained for the first time ever. Here are the reasons for the fluctuations in water levels, and the likely impacts on fisheries.
Fact sheet as of Oct. 4, 2018
The Wickiup Dam and Reservoir were created to provide irrigation water for farmers, and that remains its primary purpose today. The reservoir’s full water right belongs to the North Unit Irrigation District which serves farmers in Madras and Culver. There is not enough natural flow in the river to meet the irrigation district’s water needs, so water is stored in the winter to use in summer time.
Since 1949 when it first reached its full capacity of 200K acre feet, Wickiup Reservoir has also become a very popular fishery for kokanee, brown trout, and native redband trout. Its kokanee fishery is widely regarded as the best in the state, with 20+ inch fish common. Wickiup’s trophy brown trout are also popular with anglers.
Unfortunately, Wickiup Reservoir completely drained this year for the first time ever, mostly due to drought conditions (low precipitation/snowpack). During drought, the timing of snowmelt and the diminished amount of water contribution from tributaries impacts natural flow in the system. Unfortunately, drought is happening more frequently in central Oregon.
Also playing a smaller role in the lack of water in Wickiup Reservoir is that water managers have recently increased winter flows in the Deschutes River. ODFW and many other stakeholders have supported changing water management in the upper Deschutes River Basin to restore ecological function of the river reach from Wickiup Reservoir to the City of Bend, which benefits aquatic life including spotted frogs.
There is uncertainty about precipitation and reservoir levels in future years. If drought conditions become the norm, the reservoir may continue to be drained annually, which leaves the future of the kokanee fishery in doubt.
There is a long history of low water levels in the reservoir, but this is the lowest level ever seen. The impacts are uncertain at this time, but it’s likely that many fish left the reservoir through the unscreened outlet into the Deschutes River, where impacts to the fish aquatic communities in the river is of concern. Others likely migrated upstream to spawn in river at the upper end of the reservoir to seek more favorable water conditions. (Knowing this happens, ODFW had closed the Deschutes River Arm of the reservoir to fishing after Aug. 31 to provide some refuge for fish during low water levels.)
ODFW will be conducting electrofishing surveys in the river as well as creel and net sampling in the reservoir to monitor impacts.
Some anglers and others have requested an emergency closure of the fishery. However, there are very few fish left in the vicinity of the dam and outlet structure, and most of the impact has already occurred. The unprecedented drawdown of water led to the loss of fish, and closing the reservoir to fishing will not have any significant impact on the remaining fish.
ODFW anticipated there would be some impact to Wickiup Reservoir from changes in water management, so more conservative regulations were put into effect for 2018. The bonus bag limit was decreased from 25 to 5 kokanee per day and the Deschutes River Arm was closed above the ODFW marker at Gull Points after Aug. 31.
ODFW has no authority in water management decisions for Wickiup Reservoir as the entire water right is authorized to North Unit Irrigation District. ODFW is required to manage fish and wildlife in keeping with primary land uses, which for the Wickiup Reservoir is irrigation.
Water managers of Wickiup include the Bureau of Reclamation which owns and operates the dam, the North Unit Irrigation District which has the full water right, the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, and the state’s Department of Water Resources.
Fish populations in the reservoir are naturally producing, and no hatchery fish are stocked. If the reservoir continues to drain on a regular basis, maintaining a kokanee fishery may not be possible; kokanee need large water bodies to survive and there may not be sufficient water levels to provide that rearing habitat. Trout populations are more capable of adapting to changing environmental conditions and ODFW hopes to maintain quality trout fisheries in Wickiup Reservoir.
Water management is complex, and there are tradeoffs involved especially during drought years when demand for water exceeds supply. The silver lining is that in the long run, restoration of ecological function to the upper Deschutes River Basin will be good for redband trout, other native fish and the aquatic ecosystem.
ODFW will work to adaptively manage the fishery in response to changing and challenging conditions, including monitoring the escape of fish from the reservoir into the Deschutes River, evaluating natural production levels and the status of the recreational fishery. If necessary, ODFW may consider additional angling regulation changes in the future to maintain the fishery. Anglers should check the Central Zone fishing report for the latest information on conditions and regulations,
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