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Rogue District Update

July 2021

If it's hot for us, it's hot for salmon and steelhead.
If we need shade, so do salmon and steelhead.

Drought 2021

The early news is not good from the Klamath, and conditions are poor on the Umpqua right now. On the Rogue, ODFW is working with the Corps and Oregon Water Resources to use stored water in Lost Creek and Applegate strategically to meet fish needs to the extent possible. Releases from Lost Creek are following the pattern recommended in drought year 2015. That year, many rivers in Oregon experienced sizable losses of salmon and steelhead, but the Rogue did not despite a record number (at the time) of 100F days in June 2015. 

Releases from Lost Creek Reservoir in May and June, like every year, focused on protecting spring chinook from disease as they migrate upstream to their holding pools in the upper Rogue. Releases increased during hot weather and decreased during cool weather as the water was used carefully.

Additional actions being taken to reduce risk for fish and monitor fish response:

  • The Corps will dip into carryover storage at Lost Creek Reservoir for releases this summer.  ODFW believes this must be done cautiously. For example, the reservoirs in the Talent Irrigation District system were drawn down to very low levels in 2020, and now there is not enough water to meet irrigation needs this year.
  • ODFW requested a temporary decrease in the release temperature at Lost Creek around June 24 in anticipation of extreme heat. The objective was to improve conditions for fish as far downstream from the dam as possible.
  • ODFW asked anglers to practice stewardship during drought and the heat wave in successive news releases. Beginning July 1, we implemented a 2pm closure to fishing for salmon, steelhead and trout between Hog Creek below Merlin and Lobster Creek. This reach is the warmest section of the Rogue in summer.
  • Like all drought years, ODFW has recruited help with monitoring the canyon for stressed or dead fish from volunteers, landowners, watershed councils, and agencies. Stressed fish accumulate at the mouths of tributaries seeking cooler water during heat waves or show unusual behavior. The BLM reports observations, and no problems have been reported in May and June despite below average flow and above average air temperatures. ODFW floated the canyon July 7-8 to verify conditions and observed one dead chinook and one dead summer steelhead.
  • ODFW has provided signs to BLM asking rafters to avoid disturbing fish seeking cool water at the mouths of tributaries in the canyon and lower river.  We need people floating the canyon to be cautious around tributaries.
  • ODFW closed the hatchery hole fishery to help ensure we meet broodstock needs for our hatchery spring chinook program during a continued downturn in performance. But this also allows the Oregon State Police to focus enforcement throughout the upper Rogue where naturally produced wild spring chinook hold in summer. Angling effort in the upper Rogue has been generally low.
  • Between Fishers Ferry Boat Ramp and Dodge Bridge, ODFW delayed the opportunity to harvest wild chinook to July 11 (normally opens July 1). This was done to provide some additional protection for spring chinook that may have experienced poor conditions in migration. This fishery, scheduled to remain open until August 31, allows anglers to target early run fall chinook migrating to the upper Rogue as these fish pose a threat to the genetic health of our spring chinook run. The preseason forecast projects a return of 9,600 naturally produced spring chinook. 

Drought and Bear Creek

The most severe situation for drought at this time is on Bear Creek, where low irrigation reservoirs mean low flows and an early end to irrigation conveyance on Bear Creek and tributaries. A five-mile reach of Bear Creek below the lowermost irrigation district dam gets very low in summer in a normal year. This year flows dropped in May. Low flow combined with the late June heat wave produced very warm water in this five-mile reach. A peak water temperature of 82F was observed at the Jackson Street gauge on Bear Creek June 27.

ODFW has already worked with NOAA and the irrigation districts to help juvenile steelhead, coho, chinook and other native fish migrate past barriers in Medford to reach thermal refuge in Phoenix (see photo below). Improvements were made at three barriers in downtown Medford.  During construction, juvenile fish were jumping to pass the upper step in the fish ladder at Hawthorne Park a rate of over 500 fish per hour. To watch the video, click here.


Temporary fish ladder at abandoned sewer line in Medford

One problem with irrigation conveyance in streams is that the added water tricks fish into remaining in tributaries rather than migrating downstream to a larger tributary or the Rogue for the summer. Fish can be stranded and killed when the irrigation flow stops. ODFW will consider a potential fish salvage project on Bear Creek streams that may go dry in August. Fish would be netted out of drying streams and moved to reaches that continue to flow.

One other note—ODFW estimates that the Ashland Wastewater Treatment Plant, releasing about two cubic feet per second of treated wastewater, will constitute half of the streamflow in upper Bear Creek in late summer after the irrigation season. While not ideal water, native fish are present where the effluent enters Ashland Creek. The importance of the Ashland wastewater to streamflow in upper Bear Creek during drought was known during the multi-year drought in the late 1980s and early 1990s which is why some organizations advocated for a plant upgrades rather than Ashland shipping its waste to Medford.

Drought and fish salvage

Fish salvage is a last resort option for fish in drying streams. Collecting and hauling fish in buckets is very stressful for the fish. It’s best to let fish survive in isolated pools through the summer wherever possible.  Some pools hold water through summer thanks to subsurface flow. Thunderstorms can restore flow temporarily and allow fish to move to flowing water.

On the Rogue, some fish salvage is done every year because of site specific needs. Some streams in the Grants Pass area that convey irrigation flow dry up quickly at the end of irrigation season and fish die. Three are also some streams below irrigation diversions that go completely dry every year. Some streams were mined with a dredge decades ago to the point that we think affected the stream’s ability to flow all summer. ODFW works with volunteers to salvage fish from certain streams to save wild fish (see photo below).


Lower Murphy Creek (Applegate River). Dries annually—approximately 450 steelhead and coho salvaged June 4, 2021.

Drought observations

Droughts are opportunities to learn and inform biologists and fish management in the future. Interesting and/or unusual observations of fish and fish habitat in the Rogue watershed would be appreciated--if interesting to you, it is likely interesting to us! Examples include stream reaches that normally flow all year but are dry or intermittent this year; isolated pools that remain watered all summer; cold water refugia like a spring flowing into stream this summer; and beaver dams. Please report interesting and/or unusual observations of fish and fish habitat from around the Rogue watershed this summer. Details and photos are helpful. We may be able to provide a thermometer for additional follow up or let us know if you would like to monitor a site this summer.

Riparian advocacy and the Bear Creek Greenway

The maturation of riparian habitat that came with the development of the Bear Creek Greenway is one of the reasons that the worst days for Bear Creek are in the past. The Almeda fire set back the vegetation temporarily, but native trees and shrubs were re-sprouting within weeks of the fire. Management of greenway vegetation and riparian ordinance implementation is where help is needed. Please consider getting involved. Call 541-826-8774 for details of where help is needed.


Almeda Fire and Bear Creek in Ashland. Native trees and shrubs are resprouting extensively!

Illegal cannabis

Illegal cannabis operations have increased dramatically around the Rogue and Illinois valleys this year to the point that only the worst are seeing enforcement. Illegal water use is taking place along with riparian and instream damage.  Law enforcement must be able to adequately respond to problems.  Regulatory agencies and code enforcement personnel must have adequate resources to address problems with illegal cannabis AND fully implement rules that protect streams.  Just thought you should know—any and all help would be appreciated!

Report suspected illegal activity to the county sheriff:

Oregon Liquor Control Commission – 800-452-6522 or

Oregon Department of Agriculture Hemp Program 503-986-4652;

History of drought on Rogue

The worst drought on the Rogue in recorded history appears to have been in the late 1920s-1930s, the “Dust Bowl” years.  I have seen at least one reference to this period as a megadrought. According to Cole Rivers, the drought years of 1930 and 1931 created havoc with fish life, and fish loss was reported from almost every part of the basin. Flow in the Rogue River at Gold Ray dropped to 616 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the summer of 1931. The river temperature rose 1°F every six miles through the middle section of the Rogue, and heating in the reservoirs at Gold Ray (3.5°F) and Savage Rapids (2.5°F) dams was documented.  Note that the mainstem dam projects have already contributed to building resilience to climate extremes by removing the reservoirs at Gold Ray and Savage!

Passage restoration and an example of good news during drought

ODFW STEP volunteers have operated downstream fry traps on several tributaries again this year, and steelhead are being observed at all sites. I am most excited that summer steelhead production was successful in the forks of Jones Creek near Grants Pass despite the drought. Almost all fish passage barriers on Jones Creek have been removed or improved for passage since about 2008 (courtesy of the former Stream Restoration Alliance). During past drought years, no fish production occurred above a railroad culvert barrier located near the mouth. Thanks to fish passage restoration, wild steelhead are being produced on 4-5 miles of stream every year on Jones Creek, including drought years! 

I applaud all individual and groups who protect and restore habitat in this watershed. You are the heroes for wild fish and the future of this river!

Dan Van Dyke
Rogue District Fish Biologist




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