Reflections on a Desert Stream

More often than not, rain is not something Oregonians rejoice to see . . . But the onslaught of storms bringing rain to the West Coast are a welcome sight, especially since some of that moisture is beginning to make its way to southeast Oregon and ***** Creek.  Any amount of rain is a welcome relief to this drought affected region.

Reflecting on the photos of our recently stressed high desert streams, such as ***** Creek, several concerning questions seem to be worth pondering . . .

What are the short – and long – term impacts to the creek and its flow?  Is there still a danger that the springs that feed ***** Creek could go completely dry?  What ways did the low water and oxygen levels affect not only the trout — but the other aquatic life such as the insects that sustain the Alvord phenotypes?  Is there anything that can be done to mitigate the effects any continued or future drought may have on this stream?  . . . Should we take steps to naturally (or unnaturally) improve the stream’s ecosystem — in order to save or preserve a trout species?

It is no surprise that biologists have been considering some of these same questions in relation to high desert streams.

On October 13, 2011, the Oregon State University News and Research Communications reported that “an eight-year study has concluded that increasingly frequent and severe drought, dropping water tables and dried-up springs have pushed some aquatic desert ecosystems into “catastrophic regime change,” from which many species will not recover. See: .

OSU associate professor of Zoology David Lytle and Doctoral candidate Michael Brogan detailed their findings and published a research article Severe Drought Drives Novel Community Trajectories in Desert Stream Pools in the Journal of Freshwater Biology. The link to their research is located at the Oregon State University News and Research Communications site listed above.

The OSU News and Research Communication quotes David Lytle saying “populations that have persisted for hundreds or thousands of years are now dying out . . .  Springs that used to be permanent are drying up. Streams that used to be perennial are now intermittent.  And species that used to rise and fall in their populations are now disappearing.”

Then there are the effects from wildfires and/or controlled burns on desert streams.  There are many similar challenges between streams affected by wild fires and those affected by drought.  A summary of the effects of both episodic floods and droughts can be found on OSU’s July, 17, 2013 Extension article entitled Wildfire and Its Effect on Streams and Rivers.    See:

The author explains that the”recovery of aquatic communities is often dependent on the presence of intact communities upstream and downstream from the burned areas.  In the short term, excess fine sediment can fill in pore spaces between cobbles where fish lay their eggs and in some cases, clog and abrade fish gills and suffocate eggs and aquatic larvae living on the bottom.”

And the article states that “there can be a dramatic increase in in-stream nutrient levels the first year after a burn.  Nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are needed for plankton and algal growth — plants that form the food base for fish.  But excess amounts of these nutrients can cause algae blooms, which, when alive, decrease light penetration and, when dead and decomposing, decrease amounts of dissolved oxygen.”

The recent controlled burn on portions of ***** Creek combined with the drought conditions of the last few summers have no doubt had an effect on a stretch of the stream that in previous years yielded some of the best Alvord Phenotypes.

In the section near the burn there were significantly fewer trout and there was very little aquatic life visible among heavy algae growth.  Where there were once lush grasses with deep, narrow channels flowing with cool water, there were now channels dried and choked with moss and algae.  The few junipers and sagebrush that provided some substance and shade for the landscape are gone . . . There is no immediate cover for the formerly plentiful birds to nest and thrive, let alone to provide shade and shelter the stream.

Without healthy vegetation in the neighboring landscape the normally plenteous terrestrial insects such as grasshoppers that are a great food source for trout also seem to impacted – by both the drought and burn.

Typically we encounter plenty of airborne insects throughout the area.  In some years mosquitoes, gnats, midges, no-see-ums and insect hatches are so predominant that not only is insect repellant necessary – but fine meshed protective gear is absolutely required!

In recent years, very little snow pack has been built-up onto the nearby mountain landscape.  It is snow melt that helps replenish this stream and keep it flowing with cold water though out the summer.  Without snow melt, the springs seem to struggle to maintain adequate flow during the latter part of the summer.  Even in the spring, they seem to be subdued.

Should willows be planted in the sections of the creek drastically affected by this summer’s drought?  Would more willows and sedge or grass improve the habitat and help retain more water in these sections resulting in more water flow and higher oxygen levels?

Perhaps the burn that was done last year will eventually accomplish the objective of improving the growth of native grasses.  . . . Time will tell.

Should some type of artificial (or natural) pools be created to provide an additional refuge during drought years?  Such pools would need to be as natural and self-sustaining as possible to not adversely affect the natural ecosystem (to not create new habitats that attract different aquatic life – other than the natural forms needed to support the Alvord phenotypes.)

Perhaps it would be best to improve the depth of the stream by creating deeper sculpted sections of the creek to provide areas for the trout to have sustained oxygen, and abundant aquatic life, to provide for them during warmer months or through drought cycles.

Biologists and native enthusiasts concerned about the Alvord Phenotypes have a choice – or an opportunity – in the coming months and years.  A choice to put proactive ideas on the table to do what can be done to sustain ***** Creek, since it has been the “home” stream (other than its native streams) best suited to sustaining these unique trout through recent history.  Or . . . we can choose to ignore what has been happening in this stream during this recent drought cycle, which is expected to continue or intensify through January 2015 according to the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center (

Today, a precious eighty Alvord trout Phenotypes exist in a hatchery — waiting to be released into a stream fully capable of sustaining them.  If ***** Creek is currently the most suitable stream of SE Oregon that is capable of – or optimal for – sustaining these trout — and yet it is unable to withstand the further onslaughts of drought conditions — then what hope do these trout have?

We hope that ideas and further discussion will flow this winter among those who care about these trout — regarding how to create real and immediate solutions for these trout, and the stream that has sustained them.  We encourage all native trout enthusiasts to put positive thoughts and ideas into action by emailing them and expressing your interest in these trout to the SE Oregon Fish Biologist, David T Banks <>.


On a positive note:  We received photographs from Eric Leffers of a few of the trout that he and his father caught in June of this year.  They hearken native trout enthusiasts to be on the stream; enjoying the pristine beauty of the Great Basin & Range:  especially the trout!!

(As is often the case, there were a couple of optimal trout with rose colored opercules and a crimson lateral line — with the minimal spotting characteristic of alvordensis . . .  And, as is often the case, in the excitement & enthusiasm of the moment, these are ones that pictures in the memory turned out the best — So, more photos are left to be taken on another day!)

Thank you to Eric and his father for these excellent photos to share in their June Journey.

Alvord Spawing Female 1-Netted

Alvord Spawing Female 1-Netted (this trout’s spotting pattern is remarkably similar to the illustration of a Virgin Creek Alvord by Joseph Tomelleri from the mid-80’s . . . since it is a female (and female phenotypes seem to be notably more rare than the males) we certainly hope that this one has survived the drought!)

Alvord Spawn Shock-Netted

Alvord Spawn Shock-Netted (sparse spotting except on the posterior and especially the caudal peduncle.)

Humboldt 2a-Netted

Humboldt 2a-Netted

Lahontan Stream Resident 1-Netted

Lahontan Stream Resident 1-Netted

Lahontan-Whitehorse Basin 1c-Netted

Lahontan-Whitehorse Basin 1c-Netted (beautiful trout.)

The Creek-Looks Low for June

The Creek-Looks Low for June (and the grass already quite dry. let’s hope the cycle we’ve been going through actually ends ‘early,’ as in this year, and that patterns yield more normal precipitation going forward!)

Again, we’d like to encourage native trout enthusiasts to also encourage David Banks <>    Even if all we can give is some sweat equity — that might yield the greatest value of all.

© Kortum of Discovery, October 2014

About kortumofdiscovery

Kortum of Discovery (a slight play on Lewis & Clark's Corps of Discovery) is a family team that is Affirming the Exceptional Beauty of Nature, one Adventure at a Time. With a focus toward rare and endangered species in the Great Basin and American west: discoveries, unique methodologies, and many “tall tales to tell” are continually being shared around the campfire!
This entry was posted in Narratives, Observations, Of Fauna and Flora, Photo Journals and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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