Rain-fed reservoirs will keep most popular rivers boatable, but others running dry.

Share story

PORTLAND — Rivers are running lower than normal in Oregon, but whitewater boating should take place as usual on most of the state’s popular rivers for rafting and kayaking.

“Rivers that have reservoir storage will be OK,” said David Slover, owner of Portland’s largest paddling store, Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe. “That includes the Deschutes, Rogue, Santiam, McKenzie and Umpqua. Rivers without dams storing water will be another story.”

Two rivers most affected by lack of dams controlling flow will be the upper Owyhee and the John Day. The Grande Ronde, also in eastern Oregon and without major dam storage, is fed by the largest snow pack in Oregon, though still far below normal.

The Owyhee River at the Rome gauge in Malheur County was running at 219 cubic feet per second during the second week of April, a flow so low it hardly qualifies as a river.

“The boating season is open, but we’re advising the use of hard-shell craft only,” said Larry Moore, Bureau of Land Management Vale District spokesman. The Owyhee runs through a remote canyon and is usually done as a four-day float, so few boaters have the skill and carrying capacity in hard-shell kayaks to attempt such a trip.

The Owyhee has a median flow this time of year of 1,980 cubic feet per second; the recorded minimum occurred in 1991 at 162 CFS. Spring rains could increase the flow of all the state’s rivers, but there is precious little snow to melt and add to the flow.

After the first week of April, Oregon river basins had the following percent of normal snow-water equivalent remaining on the ground:

Willamette, 9 percent of normal snow water; Hood, Sandy, Deschutes, Crooked, 12 percent; John Day, 8 percent; Malheur, 5 percent; Umatilla, Walla Walla, Willow Creek, 23 percent; Imnaha, Burnt, Powder, Grande Ronde, 36 percent; Owyhee, 17 percent; Harney County, 35 percent; Lake County and Goose Lake, 19 percent; Klamath, 8 percent; and Rogue, Umpqua, 13 percent.

Winter precipitation was 80 to 90 percent of normal across the state, but much of it fell as rain instead of snow in snow accumulation areas between 3,500 and 6,000 feet. Also, the majority of southeast Oregon had already experienced two below-normal precipitation winters in a row, exacerbating the drought situation there.

Moderate to extreme drought conditions can be found over most of Oregon, except from the west slopes of the Cascades and Siskiyous to the Pacific Ocean. Much of Malheur, Harney, Lake and Klamath counties are in extreme drought conditions, the fourth most severe level of defined drought with only “exceptional” drought higher on the measuring gauge.

“With 8 percent of normal snow pack, anyone who wants to run the John Day should do it in May,” said Heidi Mottl, river manager for the Prineville District of the BLM. “With that said, I’ve seen years where rain can extend a season even after everyone had been forecasting doom and gloom.”

The Prineville District’s other main recreation river, the lower Deschutes River, will hold up for boating this summer, according to Mottl, because much of its summer flow comes from springs high in the Cascades. Water stored behind Round Butte Dam keeps the lower Deschutes running cold and strong all summer.

A look at river flows from the second week of April shows the same pattern, well below normal, but still with enough water for boating where water is stored in reservoirs: Rogue River at Agness, 3,170 current cubic feet per second, compared to a median of 6,420 CFS; McKenzie at Coburg, 3,570 compared to 7,370; Clackamas at Three Linx, 1,470 compared to 2,480; lower Deschutes at Moody, 5,590 compared to 7,020 and John Day at Service Creek, 2,360 compared to 4,260.

Lacking dams and the coming irrigation season, the John Day River flow should drop noticeably in June. The other rivers have flows regulated by dams.

Beyond river recreation, the main affect from lack of snow will be that people can get into the high country earlier than normal. Also, expect an early implementation of fire restrictions, which include campfire bans and more.

“We will be following hikers into the high country with our trail crews,” said Amy Tinderholt, recreation team leader for the Deschutes National Forest, noting that preferably it’s the other way around. “All federal agencies will be asking for public patience this spring with clearing trees from trails and opening facilities.”

Recreationists must also keep track of where wildfires are burning this summer and adjust their plans accordingly.