Wildfires: Devastation or Opportunity?

Photo: Karl Konecny

Article by Jeff Dose

Restoring abundant runs of wild Pacific salmon and anadromous trout, that is, fish spawned in natural habitat from wild parents, to the rivers and streams of the Pacific Northwest has risen to the highest levels in the public’s consciousness. As a consequence, there is attention from the regions’ and nations’ top elected officials and a large expenditure of public and private funds in an effort to prevent extinction and restore some measure of historical abundance.  This attention is certainly true here, in the Umpqua River basin, where our fish runs support a multitude of recreational and commercial enterprises and where there is concern for some greatly diminished populations. 

The North Umpqua River has one of the most diverse populations of wild salmon and searun trout in coastal Oregon.  There exist six different races representing four species.  These are spring Chinook salmon, fall Chinook salmon, coho salmon, winter steelhead, summer steelhead, and searun cutthroat trout.  In addition to the wild populations, there are artificially propagated populations from hatcheries, principally Rock Creek hatchery, where large numbers of juvenile spring Chinook salmon and summer steelhead are released into the North Umpqua.  The hatchery also produced coho salmon and winter steelhead to augment populations elsewhere in the Umpqua basin.    

The historically large and intense wildfires that started in early September of this year throughout western Oregon caused extraordinary losses to property and infrastructure.  Several fish hatcheries were impacted, Rock Creek hatchery along the North Umpqua River, was nearly completely destroyed by the Archie Creek Fire.  Reconstruction of this facility has been estimated to cost as much as $15 million.  Even before the Archie Creek Fire, Rock Creek was a compromised watershed with poor water quality.  High summer water temperatures necessitated construction and operation of a pumping station to draw water from the North Umpqua to allow survival of the adult and juvenile fish that were being held during the summer.  The impacts from the highly intense fire, as well as suppression actions and salvage logging, will further degrade the Rock Creek watershed for decades. Additionally, anticipated impacts from climate change will likely further retard or prevent meaningful watershed recovery.  As I describe below, there are some considerations that should be seriously considered as to whether that level of public expenditure is prudent.       

Pacific salmon, broadly defined to include sea-run trout, are a truly remarkable and successful group of animals.  During this time period, they have endured numerous global-scale climate changes – upheavals that caused the extinction of an untold numbers of other species – yet they persisted, albeit not always in the same locales.   Through evolutionary processes such as natural selection, salmon have been able to persist, and even thrive, by developing some rather unique and impressive characteristics and abilities which enhance their genetic diversity, including: 

  1.  the ability to “navigate” and migrate enormous distances;
  2. a very fine-tuned “homing” ability that allows them to return to their natal streams, while at the same time having sufficient straying capability to colonize new or previously lost habitats; 
  3. a life-history which results in the bulk of the population being at sea during the “catastrophic” natural disturbances (e.g., floods, wildfire, drought, etc.) which occur periodically within their freshwater habitat;
  4. the ability to dramatically change their kidney function so as to be able to move between fresh and salt water, which allows them to utilize the relatively rich marine environment for growth and the relatively safe freshwater environment for reproduction and initial rearing; and;
  5. the ability to evolve quickly to different environments by adopting life-history strategies, such as migration timing or body size, to a wide variety of different, localized freshwater environments – ranging from intermittent streams in southern California to alpine lakes near the continental divide in Idaho to frequently frozen rivers above the Arctic Circle in Alaska and Canada. 

Managing salmon resources involves preventing overharvest, protecting and restoring habitat, managing hydro and other dams, and augmentation of wild populations with hatchery production.  While counter-intuitive, large-scale hatchery production does not usually produce more fish and can seriously reduce fitness of wild populations.  Most current hatchery practices, such as supplementing wild populations with hatchery-bred fish produced from artificial selection, rather than natural selection, are antithetical to the goal.  Additionally, hatchery production requires a large investment of funds that might be better spent on habitat acquisition and restoration, alternative energy sources, law enforcement or better research, monitoring and evaluation.  It is not uncommon for the return of one hatchery salmon to cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.  The majority of which is paid by taxpayers and ratepayers, not from the sale of licenses and tags. 

Among other effects, genetic changes are contributing to the problem of salmon declines.  Most recent legitimate, peer reviewed research has shown significant reductions in wild salmon and steelhead production when hatchery fish are spawning with wild fish, even at fairly low levels (~10-15%) of hatchery fish.  

In addition to genetic effects from interbreeding, impacts to wild salmon begin as soon as the hatchery fish are released into the rivers and streams.  These potentially include disease transmission, competition, direct predation, altered migratory behavior, and altered predator survival and behavior.  In addition to these direct effects, the release of 10’s of thousands of hatchery reared fish (and their subsequent return) makes it nearly impossible to assess accurately the status of wild stocks.  This is further exacerbated during periods of high ocean productivity when hatchery fish survive (and return to spawn) at much higher rates than at other times.  The offspring from these pairings are unmarked and are essentially indistinguishable (without genetic analysis) from true wild stocks.  They are then usually counted, inappropriately, as wild. Despite the large body of scientific information that portrays the damage done, there has been little real change in the current hatchery/harvest paradigm.  Similarly, there has been very little change in land and water uses that affect salmon habitat.   

As to habitat “restoration,” most of what has been done to date is the uncoordinated treatment of some of the more obvious symptoms, while totally ignoring the causes – like widespread clearcutting and road building in forest watersheds, unrestricted livestock grazing, diversions of large amounts of water from stream channels for irrigation and domestic use, urban and industrial development on and adjacent to floodplains, and retention of damaging, outdated dams.  Successful, widespread restoration of wild salmon stocks will require a significant paradigm shift from current approaches.   Many researchers have concluded that for restoration programs to succeed, there must be a shift away from simplistic technofixes – such as hatcheries for low fish numbers or log structures for poor watershed conditions – to ecologically-based restoration of watershed processes.  

I’ll conclude with a quote from the book Salmon Without Rivers, (Lichatowich, 1999) in which he concluded:  

Today we are faced with a legacy of more than a century of salmon management based on a faulty set of assumptions.  Natural salmon habitats have been wrecked while we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on hatcheries, chasing the foolish dream of producing salmon without rivers.  Every independent scientific review of the current management system has called for a major overhaul, but bureaucratic salmon managers still cling to the status quo, defend their hatchery programs, and embrace without thinking the outmoded worldview from which hatcheries first emerged in 1872. [Page 219]

While I fully understand many citizens, particularly some avid anglers, have complete faith in hatchery programs and reject any attempt to reduce them.  Some even advocate for large increases. I believe them to be well-intentioned, but short-sighted.  While the Archie Creek fire caused wide-spread devastation, it also provides an opportunity. An opportunity to decommission the Rock Creek hatchery without the large expenditure of public funds that would be required to rebuild it.  I firmly believe that significant changes in land and water uses and cessation of hatchery inputs can eventually lead to more robust populations of all of our wild salmon and steelhead in the North Umpqua basin, as has happened with our wild winter steelhead after stopping hatchery production.

Kirk BlaineWildfires: Devastation or Opportunity?

Where Has All the Water Gone?

The low summer flow of steelhead streams can be a limiting factor in run size and health. There is only so much accessible habitat as streams shrink in late summer. As flow diminishes, water temperature tends to increase which can limit quality habitat as well which can greatly reduce survival of rearing juveniles. This condition can also limit over-summering habitat for adult summer steelhead and spring chinook, increasing pre-spawn mortality. North Umpqua steelhead typically spend their first two years in the watershed so must endure the limits of low summer flows twice before migrating to the Pacific Ocean. In many streams, the late summer flow seems to be reduced compared to historic records. Where has all the water gone?
Recent research has shown that common forest management activities have long-term impacts on stream flows. In a 2016 paper entitled “Summer stream flow deficits from regenerating Douglas-fir forests in the Pacific Northwest, USA” two researchers from Oregon State University. Timothy Perry and Julia Jones, analyzed a 60-year record of daily stream flow from eight paired-basin experiments in the Western Cascades. These were located in the Umpqua (Coyote Creek) and several Willamette (H.J Andrews) experimental watersheds.
These areas were previously old-growth (150-500 years old) Douglas fir and western hemlock stands, prior to treatments that converted them to early stage Douglas fir plantations through different treatments, e.g. clear-cutting and various thinnings. Each treated area had an adjacent untreated control area. They found that average daily stream flow in summer (July through September) in basins with 34 to 43 year-old plantations was 50% lower than the controls. These findings were irrespective of the type of treatment and continue to this day. These treatments are comparable to most managed forests in the region. The mechanism for these differences is that young Douglas fir have a higher rate of evapotranspiration, than older trees, particularly during the typical dry summers in our region. Commercial clear-cuts also tend to be replanted at an unnatural high density, which exacerbates the problem, more trees transpire more water.
It is assumed that when these plantations mature into a structurally complex forest (in another hundred years) the stream flows will return as the trees become more efficient at evapotranspiration. Unfortunately this is unlikely happen on commercial timberlands as they are managed on a 40 to 60 year harvest rotation. The young trees are clear-cut before they have a chance to mature.
As a consequence, reduced summer stream flow may limit aquatic habitat and exacerbate stream warming. Cumulatively across the region, forest management of this type is likely having adverse impacts on stream flow and water quality in most large river basins and is having impacts to all aquatic organisms, including native fish.
The road network constructed to harvest these forests has a major impact on streams as well. Increased runoff erosion, triggered landslides, and fish passage issues at road crossings are common problems with the road network in watersheds. Another less obvious problem is the interception of ground water. Ground water provides the majority of summer stream flow in many basins once the snow pack has melted and rain is absent. Ground water is also cold (typically around 40 degrees F) which can help reduce high summer water temperatures. A road can interrupt the natural flow of groundwater when it cuts across a slope in watersheds with shallow soil and a bedrock base. This occurs either from soil compaction forcing the groundwater to the surface on the upslope side of the road or when the road-cut is so deep in the side hill that it reaches bedrock, very common on steeper slopes. Once the ground water is on the surface it either quickly runs off, reaching the stream earlier in the season, if at all, or it warms, stagnates, and evaporates.
All of this diminishes low summer flows. The signs of ground water interception are surprisingly common. The upslope ditch will be wet or moist where there is no stream near by. The upslope side of the road will be particularly lush even supporting wetland plants. In extreme cases water will flow out of the ground onto the uphill road surface as the photograph shows.
Climate change is also predicted to reduce summer flows in Pacific Northwest streams as a result of lower snow pack and warmer summers. All of this sounds like doom and gloom for our wild steelhead but there may be a silver lining. Clear-cut harvests have largely stopped on federal land in our area. The plantations from past harvests are 30 to 80 years old, right in the “sweet” spot to transpire excess water. With proper management – management with the goal of restoring the historic, natural hydrologic processes – low summer flows and water temperatures should begin to improve. What does proper management look like? Primarily it is to leave the forest alone and allow it to develop old growth characteristics. Some thinning of over-stocked plantations and reintroduction of understory tree species in monoculture plantations may help in the short term but is typically not necessary. The dense road network that facilitated harvest is no longer needed and problem roads in the mid-slope and valley bottom should be decommissioned including deep sub-soiling to un-compact the base and contouring the road cuts to their natural slope. With time and proper management, the low summer flows should increase. All of us must insist the Forest Service and BLM manage their critical watersheds in this manner.
SteamboatersWhere Has All the Water Gone?

Winchester Dam Issues by Jim McCarthy, Southern Oregon Program Director, WaterWatch

Since the last update to appear in this newsletter, the coalition of fishing, conservation, and whitewater boating groups working to bring attention to – and stop – Winchester Dam’s ongoing harm to the North Umpqua River’s salmon and steelhead has achieved significant progress.

In October 2019, the Oregon Water Resources Department, which oversees dam safety for non-hydropower dams in the state, downgraded Winchester Dam’s condition to “poor.” The agency also requested that the owners hire a professional engineer to comprehensively inspect its structure, and warned the owners to address known dam safety issues soon. Winchester Dam has not received a comprehensive structural inspection since 1987, and in recent decades the owners of the dam have regularly undertaken repairs without the benefit of professional engineering. Because many of us live or recreate below this dam, and because the longstanding structural safety issues at the dam also delay or otherwise cause harm to salmon and steelhead, the coalition is monitoring this situation closely. As noted in a previous update, Winchester Dam is officially categorized as “high hazard” by the state, primarily due to likely loss of life in the case of dam failure among the people who frequent the river, parks, and boat ramps just downstream.

This state action means dam repairs in late summer 2020 are almost certain, making our coalition’s push to ensure enforcement of permitting and other laws protecting fish and water quality at the dam during repairs even more important. The Water Resources Department’s appropriate if long overdue action raises the question of why the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife still has not allowed – or required – a professional inspection of the obvious ongoing problems and disrepair in the dam’s fish ladder.

Another positive development came in January 2020, when the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality levied a $58,378 fine for violations during the infamous autumn 2018 repair at Winchester Dam. This almost certainly would not have happened without our coalition working together to demand accountability in the wake of this spill and fish kill. According to DEQ, pollution from this repair degraded aquatic habitat, killed numerous fish, and harmed the primary drinking water source for the City of Roseburg and the Umpqua Basin Water Association – serving approximately 37,700 people combined. DEQ found that dam repairs were conducted without following established best management practices, even after state and federal agencies provided information in advance on how to protect water quality and fish. This finding by DEQ also adds to the mountain of evidence that the Oregon Department of State Lands and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should require permits for future repairs at the dam to protect natural resources and the public.

Of course, there is an opportunity for an appeal of the DEQ fine within twenty days. This would set up a process for a contested case with an administrative law judge. If so, there would be opportunity for members of the coalition to petition to intervene in the public – and the North Umpqua’s – interest. We have asked DEQ for notice when and if an appeal is filed.

2020 is promising to be an eventful year for progress toward ending Winchester Dam’s needless harm to the incredible North Umpqua. Please stay tuned for more news and updates.

Do you have questions or concerns regarding Winchester Dam? Please contact Jim McCarthy, WaterWatch’s Southern Oregon Program Director, at 541-708-0048 or

Kirk BlaineWinchester Dam Issues by Jim McCarthy, Southern Oregon Program Director, WaterWatch

Update on Mitigation Funds: Improving Steamboat Watershed

Climate change will have a disproportionate impact on summer steelhead.  Lower, warmer flows will adversely affect both upstream migration, over-summering survival,  and rearing habitat for juveniles.  Steamboat Creek is a primary spawning area for summers, recognized by the recent federal bill designating Steamboat Creek watershed as the Frank & Jeannie Moore Wild Steelhead Sanctuary.  However little specific management direction was included in the legislation, and no funding was provided.

Steamboaters, along with Native Fish Society and Pacific Rivers, is trying to establish a collaborative effort with Umpqua National forest to improve conditions in Steamboat Creek for summers.

Jeff Dose and Joe Ferguson met with UNF staff to discuss such a collaborative effort to address water temperatures and rearing habitat for summer steelhead.  There is interest, although no decision was reached or process mapped out.

The UNF is already beginning the Geomorphic Road Analysis and Inventory Package (GRAIP) process in the Steamboat drainage, but this process deals only with sediment impacts from the road system. The GRAIP study/process refers to a detailed road inventory procedure and modeling toolset for understanding the various site specific impacts of forest roads on water quality.

We will continue to meet with UNF to discuss data needs, process, and funding mechanisms.

Article by Joe Ferguson Steamboaters board member. For more information on this or other work, please contact us at,

Kirk BlaineUpdate on Mitigation Funds: Improving Steamboat Watershed

Winter 2017 issue

President’s Message
Winter on the River
Mitigation Fund Projects
51st Annual Steamboaters’ Banquet
Comments on the Umpqua Salmon and Steelhead Hatchery Programs
Tight Lines!

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ahmcadminWinter 2017 issue

Spring 2017 issue

President’s Message
Forgotten Flies: Seeing Red
Fishing Over Spawning Fish
The Steamboat Inn…the Next Era
Steamboats Offers Help to Support Winchester Fish Counts
Update on North Umpqua Steelhead Genetics Study
Book review: “A Temporary Refuge: Fourteen Seasons with Wild Summer

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ahmcadminSpring 2017 issue

Summer 2017 issue

President’s Message
North Umpqua Complex Fire
Fish Tick Update
From the Archives: The Knouse Pool
Fall on the River

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Winter 2018 issue

President’s Message
Reader’s Comments
First Steelhead Essay Contest
The Rosebud
North Umpqua Etiquette
A Winter Beauty

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ahmcadminWinter 2018 issue

Spring 2018 issue

President’s Message
Photo Contest: A Sample of Submissions
From the Archives: “Sunny Hollow”
From the Archives: “Our River”
2018 Steamboaters’ Banquet

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ahmcadminSpring 2018 issue