Cyanotoxins in the North Santiam Watershed

Cyanobateria are one of the largest and most important bacteria on Earth.  There was no life on land until the Cyanobacteria began releasing oxygen billions of years ago.  Cyanobacteria are found in most all fresh and saltwater environments around the world.

For the past couple of weeks, the City of Salem (Oregon) has issued warnings about potential health issues related to their drinking water.  The source of the problem is a Harmful Algal Bloom that is generating Cyanotoxins (Microsystins and Cylindrospermopsin) that causes a variety of problems for fish, wildlife, pets and humans if ingested. The cyanotoxins are created when Cyanobateria (Blue-Green Algae) reproduce rapidly (due to a variety of factors), create a “Bloom”, then die off, leaving the toxins as they decompose.

Salem, and many cities in the North Santiam Watershed, get their drinking water from the North Santiam River.  The North Santiam is impounded by two Army Corp of Engineer dams (Detroit and Big Cliff) approximately 60 east of Salem.  Detroit Reservoir (behind the dams), being a large body of water, contains Cyanobacteria (obviously).  However, in recent years, there has been an increase in the number, size and duration of the “blooms” and the resulting cyanotoxins levels have reached concerning levels.  For the first time since testing began, the toxins showed up in Salem’s municipal water distribution system. You can read more about that at the Statesman Journal newspaper website.

As a North Santiam Resident, Fly Fishing Guide, River Steward and Watershed Council member, I’m more interested in the cause, rather than the effect (impacts).  Why is it happening, what are the contributing factors, how do we stop it (or at least limit it)?  So far, I’ve stumbled across a few things that are potentially contributing to the increase in Harmful Algal Blooms:

  • Climate Change (Temperature Variance, Rain Cycles)
  • High levels of Nitrogen and Phosphorus
  • Excess Nutrients from runoff and sediment
  • PH level variations
  • Light Levels and Stratification
  • Die off of other bacteria and predators of Cyanobateria that help keep it in balance
  • Natural Adaptation (evolution?) of the Cyanobateria itself

Since I don’t wish to be drawn into the labyrinth of the Climate Change debate, I’ll just let that be for now.  However, that doesn’t mean I won’t point my finger at the other Human Impacts that are potentially part of the problem. Some of the more common blooms around the US have been near big cities (Great Lakes), coastal communities (red tides/shellfish toxicity) and in the heartland (agriculture runoff from pesticides and herbicides).

First, let’s talk about where the blooms are occurring – in Detroit Reservoir – a man made body of water (not a “Lake” as it is often referred to).  Prior to the 1950’s, the North Santiam River flowed from the headwaters in the Cascades to it’s mouth at the Willamette River unimpeded.  Detroit and Big Cliff Dams put an end to that free flow (and blocked fish passage to 60% +/- of the Spring Chinook and Winter Steelhead spawning areas in the watershed).  The dams were erected to control high flows from spring rain and snow melt each year that flooded a good portion of the lower basin on a regular basis. That was a good idea, other than the lack of fish passage.

To get a little more specific, within the reservoir, the large blooms are occurring in the Heater Arm, Kinney Creek Area and near the Dam itself – all of which are on the western half of the reservoir or “downstream”.  This makes some logical sense because that’s where things like sediment and runoff would collect and stagnate, and where nutrients would be trapped and settle.

Something different about these blooms compared to the more publicized blooms around the country is that there aren’t any large cities upstream.  Sure, the towns of Detroit and Idanha are upstream and have known sewage treatment issues, but the population of those communities is very small (less than 500 full time residents combined).  There are numerous campgrounds in the areas upstream.

The reservoir is not subjected to the churning of tides that stir things up and create coastal blooms. There is little to no farming in the area upstream and certainly nothing on a large scale.  Most all the land upstream of dams is National Forest, so logging is very limited nowdays (compared to State and Private land in Oregon). There are no factories producing industrial waste, no large mines in operation, etc. The only thing remotely close to “industry” is the fish hatchery at Marion Forks another 15 miles upstream.

Could this simply be a combination of “all of the above”? :

  • Clear cut logging (and subsequent herbicide use) are known major contributors to sediment and nutrient loading in watersheds (including nitrogen and phosphorus).  Although this has been greatly curtailed in National Forest Land, a Google Earth view of the area indicates a lot of recent (last 20 years) logging activity in the Cumley, Kinney and Box Canyon Creek drainage’s (where the blooms occur).
  • Detroit and Idanha sewage from aged/inadequate septic septic systems leaching into the reservoir from upstream
  • Campground sewage, recreational use on the reservoir
  • Marion Forks Hatchery effluent – fish and fish food waste, chemical disease treatments, etc.
  • Leaching from abandoned / inactive mines
  • Fluctuations in reservoir levels (draw down in fall, retention in spring) churning up sediment every year, changing light and temperature stratification.

Alone, each bullet point seems minor, but added together and maybe there’s something to it.

With the current political atmosphere, I doubt there will be much in the way of scientific study on the matter.  With the  reduced funding of the EPA, NOAA and other government scientific type entities and the emphasis on reducing regulations, the time and money won’t stretch to our little corner of the country.

A friend of mine claims this is all a big conspiracy.  I’m not sure I buy into that, but I don’t have any doubt that this current issue will be used for political and social gamesmanship for the foreseeable future.

The North Santiam Canyon Joint Wastewater project may get moved up a bit.  Salem (and other communities downstream) may make investments in municipal water treatment facilities to rid the systems of cyanotoxins. Opponents of the USACOE water mixing tower and juvenile fish passage project will likely use this to their advantage as well.  The projects will cost huge amounts of money and ultimately, taxpayers and water consumers will foot the bill. In the end, the water in Salem will be safe to drink again. Once the immediate issue is taken care of, the causes will be ignored. The band-aids will have been applied.  Fish, wildlife and the environmental concerns will fade from our collective memory.

Scotch Broom and Spring Chinook

Related image

Excerpt from Wikipedia:  Scotch Broom (C. scoparius) has been introduced into several other continents outside its native range (western and central Europe) and is classified as a noxious invasive species in California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and parts of the east coast of North America. These shrubs commonly grow in disturbed areas and along utility and transportation rights-of-way. The prolific growth of this species after timber harvest inhibits reforestation by competing with seedling trees. It is estimated that it is responsible for US$47 million in lost timber production each year in Oregon.

Having now spent the last 1/4 century living in western Oregon, I feel qualified to say that the only positive thing about Scotch Broom is that it is the harbinger for Spring Chinook in the Willamette Valley.  When it’s blooming near Oregon City, the Springers are passing Willamette Falls.  When it’s blooming near Salem, Spring Chinook are moving into the mainstem Santiam and so on and so forth.

Scotch Broom is currently blooming near Stayton, Lyons, Mill City, Gates and even as far east as Detroit.  Usually that would mean 3,000 – 5,000 Spring Chinook are in the North Santiam Basin. This annual run of Spring Chinook generally breaks down to 20% native/wild fish and 80% hatchery raised fish.   The wild portion of this run is listed as threatened on the Endangered Species List.  Although 4,000 fish have passed Oregon City this year, only 1 has made it as far as Stayton, to pass above Bennett Dams.

The Scotch Broom was wrong this year.  So were the fishery forecasters.  But shooting the messengers doesn’t provide any answers or solve the problem.  Many folks did see this coming (and many more should have).  When this run of fish were smolts heading to ocean 2-3 years ago, they ran head on into both El Nino conditions and what was called “the Blob”.  (I wrote about it in July of 2015 here on this Blog if you want a refresher).  Essentially, these fish swam into an ocean that was warmer than usual.  These conditions disrupted the food chain from bottom to top.  When there’s no food, the populations suffer.

In order for anadromous species to survive, adult fish, that have been living in the ocean, must return to the freshwater to produce the next cycle of fish.  For wild/native fish, they must return to their natal streams and rivers.  For hatchery stocks, the fish have to make it back to the hatchery traps. Although early in the run, it’s probably a good time to be concerned.

Nothing was done to curtail fishing while these fish were in the ocean.  And until very recently, inland sport angling seasons were actually being extended.  Only within the past couple of weeks has the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) taken steps to offer protection of the stocks.  Angling days and bag limits below Willlamette Falls were reduced.  Some recent closures in the Columbia system were addressed as well.  As of yet, ODFW has not addressed angling restrictions or closures upstream of Willamette Falls. (where these fish are working their way towards their natal streams and/or hatchery traps).  In fact, there’s a very clear reminder on the Willamette Zone regulations update page that usual regulations are still in effect.  If this isn’t a clear case of an Ostrich with it’s head in it’s ass  in the sand, I don’t know what is!

The ODFW is following the same route it took with Wild Winter Steelhead (another ESA listed species) earlier this year with a “wait and see” position.  We waited.  What we “saw” was a run of fish that collapsed.  We are at the end of this run of fish and the numbers came out at around 10% of normal.  It’s this type of management that leads directly to extinction of a species.  We can’t blame ODFW for the El Nino or the Blob.  But I do believe we can, and should, call them out for mismanaging the end of the cycle once these fish entered freshwater.

I can only speak for my river – the North Santiam, but I think other tributaries of the Willamette have similar regulations.  As opposed to Salmon angling, there is no closure for steelhead fishing during the year, even when wild winter steelhead are spawning and kelting.  Bait is also allowed year-round. At least spawning salmon are given consideration in the early fall, when angling for them closes for a period of time.  And that consideration is absolutely necessary, not only for the wild/native fish, but also to ensure hatchery brood stock returns. After all, the North Santiam hatchery provides juvenile fish for the Molalla River, Tongue Point and Youngs Bay net pens, in addition to the North Santiam River below Big Cliff dam.  Without returning adults, there is no way to produce the 1.5 million juveniles for stocking locations in the Willamette and Columbia basins annually.

One final issue I generally point out when talking about management of fisheries on my river is the annual stocking of introduced Skamania Summer Steelhead.  I liken it to Scotch Broom from the invasive/noxious perspective.  As noted above, Scotch Broom has a serious impact on forestry as it “inhibits reforestation by competing with seedling trees”.  There is overwhelming scientific evidence the Skamania Summer Steelhead have the same type of impact on wild/native fish species in the region.  They compete with the wild fish at every stage of their life cycle.  Why the ODFW continues this practice is beyond my comprehension.  To purposefully introduce known harmful impacts on an ESA listed species is negligence.  Even more so when we all knew that there was a breakdown in the system for the past couple of years and that ALL species would be taking a hit.

Those yellow flowers we see each spring may be pretty, but they are a killer of our native plant life and cause significant financial problems in the local economy.  They no longer signal the arrival of Spring Chinook, at least this year in the North Santiam Basin.  However, I don’t point my finger at the messenger, instead I point it at the fishery managers.  If this year isn’t a wake up call that hatchery management systems are a failure, then I don’t know what is. Allowing ESA species to blink out on our watch, 2 in particular that are Pacific Northwest Icons, is criminal.


Fish Watch – 2017

In recent days I’ve been called a number of things – cry-baby, snowflake, bleeding heart, etc. It’s even been suggested that I wear pink ladies panties under my waders.  I will neither confirm nor deny such a thing, but will say that the idea does have some merit.  I can see how it would be easier to get in and out of wading gear.  Back to the point of this post – call me what you will, it doesn’t bother me.  I have a few ideas that may help the situation.  Are they the popular options? Oh hell no.  Will it have negative impacts on my guide business? Yes, big time.

As of April 10, 2017 there are 2 Spring Chinook and 16 Summer Steelhead above Willamette Falls. Normally, that count would be 500-750 of each species at this time of year. A small percentage of this run is what remains of the Upper Willamette Basin (UWB) Wild Spring Chinook (ESA Threatened), the rest are all hatchery raised fish used as broodstock to keep hatcheries going and provide an inland harvest sport fishery.

The hatchery fish are expensive, not just because of the millions of dollars it takes to raise, rear and release them each year, but also because of capital investment of millions of dollars to build and maintain the facilities to support the programs.

So far this year, Fishery Managers (ODFW) have stood by and done nothing as the Wild Winter Steelhead (ESA Threatened) in the UWB crashed. Even though they are charged with the responsibility to protect them, they don’t have a huge financial investment in those fish, so big deal, right?  Sure, they toss some money towards habitat improvement and research to find ways to limit interaction between hatchery and wild fish, but they don’t dedicate millions to a fish that has basically taken care of itself (as long as we stay out of it’s way).  The bulk of the money they do spend for “wild” fish also helps their hatchery fish as well, so just how dedicated are they?

Now their precious hatchery fish are looking like they’ll face the same fate. Will ODFW step up and take action to protect their hatchery broodstock? After all, we’re talking about a sizable investment of time and dollars, plus an offshore fishery that’s dependent on them. It’s really hard to “just make more” when you have no milt and eggs to work with. Under current regulations, they’re not allowed to use broodstock from a different ESU source, so unless Pres Donny J signs another Exec Order doing away with those pesky regulations, they’re out of luck.

There are rumors swirling that both UWB Spring Chinook and Winter Steelhead will be downgraded from Threatened to Endangered now, triggering more protection (and restrictions) on what ODFW can and can’t do. Of course, the current circus, I mean administration, is working hard to do away with the Endangered Species Act, so maybe the downgrade won’t mean anything.

My ideas are fairly plain and simple – shut it down.  Close angling on the North Santiam (and other UWB tributaries) for anadromous species immediately, until we get a handle on what’s happening! The status quo has changed drastically from a fish count perspective, so why maintain the status quo when it comes to inland harvest?

Another idea (very unpopular) – end the Skamania Summer Steelhead program on the North Santiam.  It’s a bust.  Spend that $150,000 per year on something that really benefits wild fish. It would be a win-win.  You stop putting an invasive species on top of an ESA listed species and have money going towards real improvement.

We have a tendency as anglers to point our fingers at everyone else as the problem.  We want everyone else to adjust and sacrifice, but not us. Until we’re willing to point that fickle finger at ourselves, nothing will change. I’m willing to support changes that would have a serious impact on my business, how about you?  It’s not so bad, I hear Victoria’s Secret has regular sales and not all of their panties are pink.


Fish Management, or lack thereof..

FYI – The information below, while focused on the North Santiam, is not an isolated instance.  This same scenario is happening in every tributary of the Willamette Basin right now.

Image result for steelhead spawning

Winter Steelhead are now spawning in the North Santiam Basin. Normally, that would mean between 300-400 breeding pairs are doing their thing, which would translate to 300,000 – 600,000 fertilized eggs incubating in the redds over the next few months. I have no idea how many hatch, spend a year in the river, migrate to the ocean, and spend a coupe years in the salt. However, it generally means that between 600-1000 fish make it home to start it all over again. I know the start and the end. So let’s extrapolate that with what we’re likely to see four years from now.

As of the end of March (nearly the end of the run cycle), we have 60 fish above Stayton. If evenly split between male/female, we have 30 breeding pairs that should equate to 30,000-40,000 eggs in redds (river nests). Some will hatch, live in the river and go to the salt. If we apply the math above, that means in 4 years we can expect 60 or so fish to return. That’s IF everything goes well over the next 4 years – good river, estuary and ocean conditions, gillnets stay off the mainstem Columbia and none of the highly populated cities along the river system have any major sewage or chemical spills. This is as good as it gets under current management practices. We might have a self sustaining run of 60 fish (that been nearly 1,000 for the past decade or more).

We just lost over 90% of a run that’s been holding it’s own, at least for one cycle (in perpetuity).

There’s one other intangible factor in all of this that’s hard to estimate.  That would be the number of fish that are poached (intentionally or ignorantly)  each year on the North Santiam. Maybe it’s not such a big deal in a normal year.  And I don’t think it’s that large of a number – maybe 10-20 fish?  But in a year like this – that’s 15-20% of the run.  That suddenly become a pretty big deal.  Those 60 become 40, then 20, then null in a very short time period.

 For the past several years, I have been advocating for fishing regulation changes that offer some protection for these fish.  I’ve suggested we have some fishing closure windows on the North Santiam – not a popular idea.  But an opportunity for this group of fish to not be hassled, hooked, and maybe even save a few from being poached.  Afterall, it’s a lot tougher to lie your way out of a ticket by claiming that you’re fishing for some other species if the entire river is closed for a period of time.

 Who would be tasked with doing such a thing?  That would be the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.  They have the responsibility of setting policy and regulations.  In fact, this little tidbit is prominently displays on their website as the agency’s mission:

 Our mission is to protect and enhance Oregon’s fish and wildlife and their habitats for use and enjoyment by present and future generations. 

With a mission like that, you’d think that the fine folks at ODFW would be concerned that 90% of a wild run just took a nose dive.  You’d think that they would have come up with something by now, after all, we could all see this disaster taking shape as early as last December.  They did release some regulation changes on March 30 of this year. Those are:

 Willamette River and tributaries:

Beginning April 1 through July 31, 2017, the following rules apply:

  • In all areas of the Willamette River and tributaries, including flowing waters, that are open to fishing for hatchery Chinook, hatchery steelhead, trout, or warmwater gamefish, anglers with a valid 2017 Two-Rod Angling Validation may use up to two fishing rods while fishing for any game fish or non-game fish species except sturgeon. Youth anglers under 12 years of age may use two rods in these areas without purchasing the Two-Rod Angling Validation.
  • Angling for sturgeon remains restricted to the use of one rod per angler.
  • All other rules and licensing requirements specified in the 2017 Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations remain in effect.

How’s that for action?  Reminding folks to buy their 2 rod validation so they can use 2 rods. Other than that, all regulations remain in effect.  That’s like reminding the fox to bring along a buddy next time he visits the hen house!

The prospects for the next 2 years (2 cycles) is not very bright either.  Those are fish that were either fry or 1 year old (and still in the river) during the 2015 drought.  We’ve know for 2 years that those cycles are likely to take a hit, and still, nothing from the ODFW to address that possibility.

 So what’s left?  The wild fish that hatched in the North Santiam in the spring of 2016.  The river was cool and in pretty good shape when they hatched and will likely be in good shape this year as they mature and head for the salt water.  If the ocean time isn’t too rough on them, we may see our usual 600-1000 fish back.  That would leave us with 1 out of 4 cycles that hasn’t crashed. Something to be thankful for. Steelhead are resilient and have proven over and over again that they can adapt and survive, but only if we take steps to help.  In the big picture, we’ve taken some steps this year, but mostly backwards.  I hope that changes very, very soon.


Your own Private Idaho (or Oregon)

Update 05/09/2017 – The Department of State Lands Board voted unanimously to keep the Elliot State Forest in public ownership and directed staff to explore other means of moving the property from the Common School Fund Trust. 

Update 04/03/2017 – It appears that State Treasurer, Tobias Read is having second thoughts on the matter and may be reversing his support of selling the Elliot State Forest to private interests.  That would make it 2-1 against, with the only supporter now being Secretary of State Dennis Richardson.

As a former resident of the Gem State, I’ve been curious about a 1990’s film named “My Own Private Idaho” when it shows up in the guide as I’m channel surfing. The title of the film gives one the impression that it might be a movie about the wild and scenic portions of the western USA.  In actuality, the film is about a couple of homeless hustlers in Portland, Oregon that do whatever it takes to make a buck, including prostituting themselves.

The old adage that “Life Imitates Art” recently occurred in the Beaver State as the Oregon Land Board voted 2 to 1 to sell off the Elliot State Forest for roughly $200 million dollars to a Timber conglomerate.  This 93,000 acre chunk of publicly owned property contained, by some estimates, $500 Million dollars worth of lumber. The purchasers got a pretty good deal – spend $200 Million for something worth twice that amount.  But the deal is even sweeter when you get down to the details.  Once the timber company has raped and pillaged, extracted every last bit of income they can get, they have an option to sell the property back to the State for another handful of millions!  Then the taxpayers in Oregon can pay to clean up the mess, plant new trees and rebuild the forest (most likely to sell it off again in a few decades).

Couple all that with the fact that Oregon has the most lenient Forest Practices regulations in the West, and the newly minted Commander in Chief is attempting to do away with that pesky EPA, and you’ve got a recipe for taking the entire Forest down to bare dirt. Fish and Wildlife will be decimated.  Water, air and soil conditions will be horrendous.  And let me point this out one more time – they will sell this great wasteland BACK TO THE STATE OF OREGON!  You and I will again be owners of what we once owned, only now, it’s going to cost us millions of dollars and years of work and waiting before it will ever be considered a forest again. In the meantime, species of fish, plants and animals will suffer or completely disappear.

My entrepreneurial friends may wonder – how can I work such a lucrative deal myself?  It’s really quite simple! Simple if you happen to be be wealthy to begin with, or have access to venture capital funding  If that is you, then here’s all you need to do:

  1.  Identify a piece of Oregon Public Land that you can profit from
  2. Make campaign contributions to the Governor, Secretary of State, and State Treasurer candidates (Be sure to contribute to both parties candidates, just for insurance)
  3. Shortly after the election, make your offer to the State Land Board (Since you now “own” the 3 members of the Board, you’ll get approval for sure!)
  4. Take ownership of the property and begin extraction as soon as possible
  5. Once you’ve taken everything of value (timber, mineral resources, etc.) just walk away, it’s not your problem!
  6. Sell the property back to the State of Oregon for 10-20% of what you paid for it (This is your exit bonus)

That’s it!  You’ve now more than doubled your money.  You’ve sent the raw materials overseas so that foreign interests can profit by selling products made from those raw materials back to American citizens.

There are a few more ways you can maximize your profits, but I’ll save those bits of information for another post.  Come back soon and learn how to avoid property taxes, get income tax breaks on the profits.  And if you have the moral fortitude of our new president, you can even file for Chapter 11 and not have to pay back any loans you may have incurred to work the deal in the first place!  Yup, America is going be great again, starting right here in Your Own Private Oregon.