Rafters plow through the rapids on the Rogue River near Trail on Saturday. State fishery managers say water releases will be good for fish and rafters this summer despite a lower-than-average snowpack. Jim Craven 5/19/2007 - Mail Tribune / Jim Craven

Army Corps goes with the flow

SHADY COVE — Despite a less-than-average snowpack in the Rogue River basin, state fishery managers expect to spill enough water from Lost Creek and Applegate reservoirs at critical times to minimize losses from two runs of Rogue chinook salmon this summer.

Boosted flows to the Rogue through June should allow all but 4 percent of the spring chinook run to survive migration through the warm waters of the Rogue River Canyon and reach the upper Rogue safely, according to draft Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife projections.

Another spike of water released from Lost Creek Lake in August and September also was expected to cause just 13 percent of the Rogue's fall chinook to succumb to natural disease outbreaks caused by low, warm summer flows, the projections state.

Enough extra water also remains to keep the Rogue a healthy place for juvenile salmon and steelhead rearing in the main-stem Rogue despite projections that the upper Rogue basin will generate just 80 percent of the average in-flow to Lost Creek Lake.

Unveiled during a public meeting Thursday in Medford, the draft represents the ODFW's best estimate on how most effectively to use the basin's water stored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers specifically for Rogue fishery enhancement — the main target for summer releases.

"It's like a water bank account," said Tom Satterthwaite, the ODFW's Grants Pass-based fisheries scientist who drafts the agency's flow recommendations for salmon.

"We know how much money we have on our bank account," Satterthwaite said. "The key is to try to spend it to get the biggest bank for our buck."

Despite the low water yield, the draft projects to spend the store water judiciously enough that Satterthwaite expected no mass salmon die-off like drought years of the 1990s and even less than 2001, the last low-water year here.

"It doesn't look like an extremely dry year, but just a dry year," Satterthwaite said.

The ODFW drafts its water-release requests based solely on fishery needs as outlined by Congress in 1962 when it authorized the basin's Corps dams. But the supplemented summer flows should allow for a fluid summer rafting season for thousands of visitors to the upper Rogue.

Southern Oregonians annually flock to Shady Cove to beat the summer heat by rafting the 11-mile stretch from Cole Rivers Hatchery to downtown Shady Cove.

Based on reservoir releases, the river will be chugging anywhere from 40 percent to 55 percent higher at Shady Cove than it would without the release of stored water.

"That really helps us," said Devon Stephenson, whose family's Rogue Rafting Co. in Shady Cove can rent equipment to as many as 225 rafters on a hot summer Saturday.

"The extra water creates a faster run, so that's better turnover for us," Stephenson said. "And it prevents our equipment from getting trashed."

For now, both Lost Creek and Applegate lakes are right on full heading into the third week of May, thanks largely to relatively cool air temperatures that have kept releases down.

Lost Creek Lake's surface elevation was exactly 1,872 feet above sea level, while Applegate Lake was right at its official full mark of 1,987 feet above sea level.

"All things considered, when the lakes are full, we consider it a pretty good year," said Jim Buck, the Corps' project manager for Lost Creek and Applegate reservoirs.

The draft release plan represents the ODFW's request for doling out the 180,000 acre-feet of water stored at Lost Creek Lake for fishery-enhancement needs.

The main goal is to provide enough water at the right times to protect migrating spring chinook and fall chinook from dying during an outbreak of columnaris, a natural salmon-killing disease that can run rampant during low and warm summer water conditions.

To do that, the agency expects to spend 59,000 acre-feet of that stored fishery water for spring chinook, then another 71,000 acre-feet will go toward helping migrating fall chinook. Mid-summer releases ensure greater survival of juvenile salmon born this year and rearing in the Rogue until they head to the sea as smolts in late summer.

"There are very few years when there's enough stored water to meet all the needs," Satterthwaite said. "That's why you have to prioritize the list of needs and allocate water accordingly."

In 2001, for instance, water for Rogue salmon was at such a premium that more than half the spring chinook run was forecast to succumb to columnaris.

But juggling flows to spill more water during hot spells kept the spring chinook losses to just 17 percent.

"Literally, there's a decision on who lives and who dies because of the columnaris in the system," Satterthwaite said.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail

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