A River Dying?
It’s been a difficult summer for the anadromous fish of the Umpqua Rivers. The river was so hot that the Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, to their credit, shut down much of the angling of the basin. Even the notoriously beautiful cooler waters of the North Umpqua were restricted to mitigate the already stressed summer Steelhead run. (Shout out to Greg Huchko, Umpqua District Fish Biologist, for his due diligence). This declaration especially focused on areas where stream tributaries to the main stems of the river occurred. Salmon and Steelhead gathered in these areas searching for cool water to survive the detrimental high temperatures of the river. Anglers were taking advantage of the pile ups at these stream entries to catch their limits, thus the restrictions to give the fish a chance.
I live near the headwaters of the South Fork of the Umpqua River. I am a persistent watcher of the Umpqua basin’s river depth gage system. The gage at Tiller, Oregon indicated that this was the lowest river depth reading since 1940 and summer isn’t over. We may break a summer low flow record this year. The river system is low and the water is hot. This is the perfect formula for fish to go belly up.
It would have been great to enlist the cooperation of irrigators through the Douglas County Water Master’s office but no such cooperation was gathered. As I travel the road to Roseburg from my home, I saw old fashioned irrigation equipment spewing water out on to field that I know will not yield a second cutting of hay. Water cannons are the worst. 35% of the water doesn’t even reach the ground, in most cases, when hot dry winds are evaporating the fine spray. Is it just carelessness or are Oregon’s irrigation rights laws old and rickety and out of step with reality?
Douglas County’s main waterways are on a preliminary list created by the Oregon Health Authority that highlights toxic algae-prone water systems within the state. Nearly 40 percent of the 41 water systems listed by the state agency are in Douglas County. Sections of the Umpqua River in Douglas County are under a permanent health advisory. Toxins in the water are particularly bad for pregnant women. A hand full of urban water supply areas of Douglas County are at high risk. You can’t filter or boil these toxins out.
We could blame the summer weather for our problem but many of you are aware of how poor the salmon runs have been of late. It’s not just the river, but the ocean conditions that also determine the health of the fisheries. Of particular concern for me is the South Umpqua Spring Chinook. It has been reasonably estimated that the “run” was very near 5000 fish annually when the Umpqua Native Americans of our region were managing them. On average over the past 25 years there have been 170 individual fish returning yearly. A reasonable number would be 500 fish to maintain the genetic diversity. This summer, this unique culturally and ecologically important run was down to 28 fish. Yes, 28 fish! That is second lowest count of this fish run on record. It had nothing to do with the summer low flow. The vast majority of this summer low flow was purely the result of the adverse impact of the Oregon Forest Practices Act (OFPA), clear cut logging and its attendant management techniques.
The issues facing our ecosystems will never be resolved unless you personally get involved. Me, personally, I’m all in. Those who are “all in” remain far and few between. Why? First, please don’t rely on the professionals to make a stand. They rely on support from the citizens and concerned organizations. Unless your eyes, your ears and your mind get involved, the agencies, public and private, that are involved with these issues will not succeed. They are constrained by the very agency for which they are employed. If you think that the input from government agency specialists is always considered and incorporated into management actions, you are mistaken. Specialists in the agency are often politely ignored and only those that can quietly reach out for help can continue the watchful eye. Those that publicly or even privately voice their opposition are silenced by termination, reassignment, or transfer. That’s not by accident. Until there is an up swell of public concern these specialists will be risking much in hopes someone is listening that can take up the cause. Secondly, unless you yourself take to heart the issues at hand, educating yourself and empowering yourself, the pace and scale of restoration work will remain at its insufficient level of productivity.
Ouch! Am I making all of this too real? Well, like you, I am a concerned citizen. I’ve seen the success that restoration ecology can produce. It’s the drama of money and politics that is standing in the way of recovery. Your voice counts. If you feel like it doesn’t, then that is where you need to start your work. Find out what is going on with regard to aquatic habitat recovery. Learn who in the agencies is doing their job and SUPPORT them. Find out who in the agencies is under the thumb of industry and politics. Let your deep concern for another fish run of the Umpqua that is going extinct be heard. It needs to be heard in the ears of those in power, governance and the agencies. It’s your job. You have a voice. Make it strong and consistent. It matters