A $10.7 million project is coming to the Crooked River, designed to help the region’s salmon and steelhead populations traverse the river more effectively.

A collection of local groups, along with federal and state agencies, plans to begin construction this spring on a 28-foot fish ladder at the Opal Springs Hydroelectric Project, near the mouth of the Crooked River. The primary goal of the project, according to Brett Hodgson, fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Bend, is to allow chinook salmon and steelhead in the Deschutes Basin to travel up the Crooked River more effectively, reuniting disconnected fish populations.

“It provides access to approximately 120 river miles of the Crooked River and its tributaries,” Hodgson said. “Passage and access to the Crooked River is really critical.”

Finlay Anderson, a consultant on the project, said the fish ladder will be made of concrete, with 38 individual segments where the fish can rest in the water. The flow of the water through the ladder will be controlled by a rubber bladder, Anderson said. Darek Staab, project manager for Trout Unlimited’s Deschutes Chapter, said the ladder will make it possible for fish, including native rainbow trout and bull trout, to move upstream and downstream more freely.

The project has been a long time in the making. Ed Pugh, general manager of the Deschutes Valley Water District, which operates the Opal Springs Hydroelectric Project, said various stakeholders have looked at better facilitating fish passage on the Crooked River for more than a decade. However, a lack of funding and disagreements over the specific requirements for the fish ladder kept the project from getting off the ground, according to Pugh.

The hydroelectric project, which includes a small dam, diverts water from the river and through a turbine operated by the Deschutes Valley Water District. Pugh said the hydroelectric project generates power and revenue for the district’s approximately 4,200 customers in Jefferson County.

“For low-income Jefferson County residents, it’s been a real help,” Pugh said.

Unfortunately for fish populations on that segment of the river, the hydroelectric project, completed in the mid-1980s, did not include a way for fish to pass the dam on the Crooked River. While officials can move salmon and steelhead by trapping them and hauling them to a different point on the river, the process only works for a portion of the population, and can make them easy prey for predators, according to Staab. As a result, Staab said fish populations upstream and downstream are becoming genetically distinct from one another, leaving both populations less diverse and more vulnerable to climate change and other dangers.

“Fish passage might allow those species to breed more, and help their genetics,” Staab said.

The project dovetails with efforts to restore salmon populations in the basin, including a 273-foot, $100 million underwater tower and fish-collection facility co-managed by Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs at the Round Butte Dam on Lake Billy Chinook, 6 miles downstream from Opal Springs. John Esler, program manager for Portland General Electric, said the reintroduction program is entering its eighth year.

Hodgson added that a majority of steelhead in Lake Billy Chinook tend to swim up the Crooked River, as opposed to the Deschutes or Metolius rivers. Esler added that the temperature of the water could play a factor. Both men agreed that it establishes the Crooked River as a particularly important piece of habitat for the fish to access.

“It’s increasingly clear that the Crooked River is going to be a really important part of the reintroduction,” Esler said.

Pugh said discussions around a fish ladder intensified after 2011, when the district reached an agreement with state, federal and non-governmental organizations to provide fish passage at the project. Of the $10.7 million estimated to go toward the project, around $4 million will come from the water district, according to Pugh. He added that the rest of the funding will come from a mix of state and federal partners, though he did not provide specifics.

Additionally, Portland General Electric announced a $1 million grant, in conjunction with the Warm Springs tribes, to increase water flows for the project. Esler said increased flows not only help fish enter the ladder more easily, but also help the Deschutes Valley Water District generate more hydroelectric power, helping the district support the cost of the project. The grant, which will be awarded upon completion of the project, comes from a dedicated PGE fund aimed at redistributing surplus water in the basin for different projects, according to Esler.

“It was the right thing to do with this funding source,” Esler said.

Pugh said the water district intends to break ground on the project in April, and added that he expects the project to be complete by the end of 2019.

“We’re pretty excited about this project finally getting started,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com