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In Hot Water 

Dead salmon discovered in warming lower Deschutes

Over the Fourth of July weekend, Steve Pribyl was hiking along the lower Deschutes River between Rattlesnake Rapid and Moody when a distressing sight caught his eye. The retired Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologist and Deschutes River Alliance board member found about 13 dead or distressed sockeye salmon in shallow waters, says DRA Board President Greg McMillan. The apparent cause of death: thermal stress.

Pribyl pushed off in a kayak Tuesday morning to survey the river and look for other fish kills.

With June temperatures reaching highs not normally seen until August, the waters of the Deschutes and other Oregon rivers are heating up, creating dangerous conditions for migratory fish, including an increase in deadly bacteria.

"Normally we see these kinds of conditions later in the summer, not in late June and early July," said ODFW Information and Education Division Administrator Rick Hargrave, in a recent release. "When streams get too warm, fish are stressed and as a result the fishing goes downhill fast." Sockeye salmon in particular, McMillan explains, have a lower tolerance for warm temperatures than other types of salmon, making them the "canary in the coal mine." And in this case, he says, there's a possibility the fish are not just sensitive, but endangered.

"One thing we would certainly like to know is if any of these fish are listed sockeye from Idaho. The timing is right," McMillan says. "If these are endangered that would be huge."

Craig Banner, a senior fish health specialist for the ODFW, says he's not aware of the recent fish kill, but points out they do happen from time to time. He adds that his lab in Corvallis has been analyzing a half-dozen spring Chinook salmon found under the falls near Oregon City, who all appear to have succumbed to a bacteria that thrives in warmer waters. The ODFW lab in Madras did not return a request for comment by press time.

"The bottom line is we've had exceptionally warm waters," Banner says, adding that while early exposure to warmer temperatures can cause fish loss, he isn't aware of any major fish kill events so far this year.

And either way, he figures there's only so much that can be done.

"I don't talk directly to any deity," he explains, "so there's not a whole hell of a lot we can do about it."

But the Deschutes River Alliance is urging Portland General Electric and The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, who co-own and operate the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex, to release more cool water into the lower Deschutes.

"Last summer, 2014, the dam operators elected to lower discharge temperatures by using more water from the bottom of the reservoir.  We think it's time to do that once again," McMillan wrote in a post on the DRA website.

Portland General Electric spokesman Steve Corson says that isn't likely to