Rogue flows won't increase until salmon move

Rafters, jetboaters and anglers will have to wait until the Rogue River's fall chinook salmon start migrating upstream en masse before they see a rise in river flows that have been lowered by drought.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife researchers pulling a seine through the Rogue at Huntley Park upstream of Gold Beach Monday captured just one fall chinook, keeping ODFW from pulling the trigger on a scheduled water increase. If they had found more chinook during their survey, outflows from Lost Creek Lake into the upper Rogue would have been pumped up by 25 percent.

The increase is designed to help the all-wild run of fall chinook navigate the lower Rogue, but the extra water would be a boost for rafters and jetboaters as well.

"We want to see a significant movement upriver before we start augmenting flow," says Todd Confer, the Gold Beach District fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Lost Creek Lake releases into the Rogue stayed at 1,500 cubic feet per second instead of rising to the planned 1,900 cfs, Confer says.

The thrice-weekly netting at Huntley Park resumes Wednesday and runs again Friday. If fall chinook show up in the nets in significant numbers, Confer says, the agency plans to order the increase in flows from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps operates the dam under a regulated summer flow regimen shaped by ODFW and others to benefit the Rogue's downstream anadromous fish, which get top summer priority under federal law authorizing the dam project.

With the ongoing drought lowering Rogue tributaries to a trickle, the total flow at Grants Pass was just 1,605 cfs Tuesday. That's about 300 cfs lower than the historical average, according to the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Bumping the Rogue to 1,900 cfs in Grants Pass would allow Hellgate Excursions to operate its tour boats at full capacity after running at about 80 percent to keep boat weight down to handle shallower depths under the current flow regimen, says Hellgate General Manager Travis Hamlyn.

"This is a year when it's been hard on everybody," Hamlyn says. "There are a lot of us who rely on this river to support this town."

In the upper Rogue, the flow in the Eagle Point area Tuesday was 1,573 cfs — which is good enough for most rafters.

"Getting more water would make it nicer, because it covers the rocks," says Carolee Enriquez, owner of Rapid Pleasure Raft Rentals, one of several upper Rogue rafting liveries. "It makes for a smoother trip."

Without water releases from Lost Creek Lake, upper Rogue flows would be almost 700 cfs lower than they are, because the drought-plagued flow into Lost Creek Lake was just 832 cfs Tuesday.

Each day the stepped-up water releases are delayed saves about 400 acre-feet of water in Lost Creek Lake, a reservoir with a 464,000-acre-foot capacity, says Pete Samarin, an ODFW biologist who helps craft the summer water-release schedule.

"That's fairly good savings," Samarin says. "Every little bit helps."

That won't necessarily help this year's water needs because ODFW already has asked the Corps to dip 50,000 acre-feet into its normal carryover storage to release enough water to stave off warm-water diseases that can kill large numbers of migrating chinook in drought years. But the water savings now will help the project recoup that extra water loss next winter, Samarin says.

The reservoir Tuesday was down to a surface level of 1,810 feet above sea level, rendering the boat ramps at Stewart State Park inoperable. The ramps have been closed since Tuesday to trailered boats, says park Manager Perry Salvestrin. The Takelma ramp off Takelma Drive is a deep-water ramp usable year-round, and the marina remains fully open and functional, Salvestrin says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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