Rivers near historic low flows; fish persevere

By John Hanron
Methow Valley News


Methow Valley, WA - The flow of the Methow River was nearing a new record low for the date on Tuesday (Sept. 2), but biologists were hopeful that spawning fish would endure the hardships.

The river at the gauge near Pateros was running at 234 cubic feet per second, just 4 cfs above the lowest level recorded on that date since the U.S. Geological Survey began measuring it 44 years ago.

Ray Smith, field office chief of the USGS water resources division in Spokane, said the situation is the same throughout the region, with record low flows being recorded in western Washington, Idaho and western Montana.

"The thing thatís unusual is weíve several years that were lower than normal in recent years," he said. "It hasnít been a one-year thing. Two years ago we were hitting record lows."

Two rivers in the region, the Kettle and the Similkameen, dropped below their historic low flows for the date. Others, like the Wenatchee, the Entiat, the Okanogan and the Stehekin, teetered just above their record lows, like the Methow.

Charlie Snow, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said sections of the upper Twisp and Methow rivers that historically go dry in the late summer have dewatered about three weeks early.

"In a way thereís almost a silver lining," he said. "We always have redds that get dewatered and the juveniles in there die. This year, those areas became dewatered before the Chinook spawned. I guess thatís a good thing. They were kept out of those areas."

Snow, who is conducting a spring Chinook survey in the watershed, said many fish delayed spawning because the rivers were so warm. One reading at the mouth of the Twisp River measured 73 degrees a couple of weeks ago, a temperature that Snow described as "extremely warm."

Typically, the spring Chinook would be finished spawning by now, but they are still going at it in the Chewuch and Twisp rivers. As of last week, crews counted more than 110 redds in the Methow River, 50 redds in the Chewuch and just two in the Twisp River. Snow said he expected those numbers to increase this week.

Fish driven to spawn in the upper reaches of the watershed will probably have the most difficult time of it, Snow said. Lost River, which is typically an important spawning ground, had just one spring Chinook salmon redd this week. Because a section below it is dried up, no more fish are likely to pass through until November.

Local Forest Service biologist Jennifer Molesworth said bull trout, which are also spawning now in the upper sections of rivers and creeks, may have passed the dewatered sections before they dried up.

Snow said, however, that he was concerned that some bull trout, which return to the ocean after spawning, would get stranded as they tried to make their way back downstream.

Molesworth said she had faith in the abilities of the summer Chinook, which are now making their way upstream. They typically spawn in the Methow basin in October, historically one of the lowest flow months for the Methow.

"Theyíre pretty amazing, they can crawl through a lot," she said. "They can burst through some really shallow areas."
A worker at Wells Dam said summer Chinook have been congregating near the mouth of the Okanogan River, waiting for the temperature to decrease. The fishing on the Columbia near Brewster has been good, he said.

"It would be nice to have some better flow," Snow said.

The lowest the Methow River has been in the past 44 years is 150 cfs, recorded Jan. 8-10, 1974, during a freezeup.


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