Thousands of fish found dead in dried-up river channel

Volunteers worked with buckets to save those still alive

POSTED: 9:07 AM PST December 24, 2013    UPDATED: 4:39 PM PDT October 20, 2013 
BEND, Ore. -

The search is on to find answers to why so many fish have been found dead in a dried-up channel of the Deschutes River southwest of Bend.

Dropping water levels in the Deschutes trapped the fish in a channel near Lava Island resulted in the death of hundreds if not thousands of fish. But officials said water levels are routinely lowered at this time of year, and this result appeared to be new and unexpected.

Kim Brannock, who moved to Bend from Portland a few months ago, said she was running Thursday on the river trail when she noticed very little water between the banks.

"As I came up and noticed that the side channel, which is pretty significant when the water is coming through, was completely empty," Brannock said. "I knew that there had to be a lot of dead fish."

She was right: Piles of trout and whitefish could be seen up and down the dry channel.

"It broke my heart to see that many fish, also to see really like vibrant, really big trout too, that just laid there and suffered," Brannock said.

She added that several people had stopped to take pictures while others tried to save some of the fish from a pool of water that was badly depleted of oxygen.

After several calls to friends and family, Brannock and her husband, Lee, decided they would go back to the pool early Friday morning to try and save as many fish as possible.

"People were kind of laughing, 'Oh you're going to go down there and save a few fish.' I was like, 'Yeah, because it's about trying to make a difference,'" Brannock said.

Around 8:30 a.m. Friday, Brannock, her husband and daughter, along with a neighbor, hiked in to the pool.

"We found this pool shortly afterwards, which last night was at least like another 18 inches higher, and it was filled with fish," Brannock said.

For several hours Friday, the team, along with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, moved 500 to 600 fish from the shrinking pool, nearly a quarter of a mile to the main channel of the Deschutes. ODFW officials estimated there were about 3,000 whitefish and sculpin found dead in five pools that had gone or were going dry.

For the last few days, the water level has been dropping on the Central Oregon river.

"At the end of irrigation season, we'll drop reservoir outflows down to begin storing water through the storing season throughout the winter," said Oregon Water Resources Region Manager Kyle Gorman.

Water managers say because Wickiup Reservoir is so low, they are not releasing much downstream.

"Compared to the previous two years, we had to drop the outflow down to fulfill water rights," Gorman said.

The most puzzling thing: Water managers say they've done nothing different than in years past -- and they also noted this isn't the worst it's been, in terms of river levels.

"Hopefully, somebody will figure out what did happen (to the fish) this year, as to previous year,s and then find a solution so it doesn't happen again," Gorman said.

Many observers say it's the first time they've seen anything like this.

"I sort of consider this community all about wildlife and the outdoors," Brannock said. "It kind of feels like a dirty little secret to me. I'm kind of surprised, disappointed for sure."