Dan Van Dyke of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is ecstatic that in a drought year, very few chinook salmon migrating up the Rogue River have perished from gill disease, which tends to flare up in low flows.
That's a product of coordination between the ODFW and Corps of Engineers over outflows from Lost Creek Dam, 40 miles upstream from Grants Pass.
They opened up the spigot in May and June for spring chinook, and will crank it open an additional 350 cubic feet per second within a week to aid fall chinook migration.
But come September, the river will be gradually reduced again as salmon begin to spawn, beginning with spring chinook in the upper Rogue.
When the river gets skinny it's bad news for Hellgate Excursions, the 54-year-old tourist draw that hauls 75,000 or more people down the Rogue River each summer.
Low flows have already forced Hellgate to run its 60-passenger boats with 10 percent of the seats empty this summer to provide enough clearance, according to owner Robert Hamlyn.
It will be touch and go to run beyond Sept. 10, in contrast to pre-2000, when the boats often made it through Oct. 1. Since then, tweaks in salmon management have made September flows lower earlier.
Hellgate hasn't made it to Sept. 20 in over a decade, and now making it through Sept. 15 is a crapshoot. It becomes unsafe to blast through the shallows when the flows in Grants Pass drop to somewhere around 1,300 cfs, although that number varies as the river changes.Outflows from the dam could hit that level by Sept. 10 this year, and could be around 1,000 cfs or lower by the 15th, according to Van Dyke and Jim Buck of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The level in Grants Pass won't be much higher.
"We used to run to the end of September, and now they drop the water lower," Hamlyn said. "For the amount of impact we have in the community — jobs — I think they could keep a flow that's adequate through Sept. 15 or 16 that doesn't affect salmon spawning."
"We understand that fish are important, but we also hope they factor in how that water could be spread out to help the economy in a community that needs jobs," Hamlyn said.
But the needs of Hellgate Excursions jetboats don't fit into the equation.
When Lost Creek Dam was authorized by Congress in the 1960s, flood control and fishery management were the top priorities, and recreation was not included.
From the fishery management standpoint, Van Dyke said everything went to plan. During hot spells the releases increase, and if it cools, flows are cut back. Water temperature is the key for salmon disease, which killed large numbers of the run in 1992 and 1994.
"We've been extremely careful with our flow recommendations, after a record dry 2013 and the hottest July on record," said Van Dyke, the district fisheries biologist. "The agencies have coordinated quite well."
Lowering water in September accomplishes two things: It allows salmon to spawn with no threat of the eggs being left high and dry, and it also minimizes early emergence of spring chinook fry in spring the following year, because cold water releases are delayed.
It's all a juggling act in a drought year.
"We're cutting it extremely tight on water," added Dan Van Dyke, "We also know we want to make sure we hit those releases down to 1,200 cfs or less as soon in September as we can."
"I would suspect we're going to get down to 1,200 by Sept. 12 or so."