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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Rich Landers: Rocky Ford Creek’s higher water level contrast to norm

Flyfishermen will notice higher irrigation-related flows already showing up in Rocky Ford Creek, a prized trout fishery north of Moses Lake. (Rich Landers)
Flyfishermen will notice higher irrigation-related flows already showing up in Rocky Ford Creek, a prized trout fishery north of Moses Lake. (Rich Landers)

Consider yourself an old timer if you’ve seen the St. Joe River this low in late June. The flows this week were 28 percent below the low-flow record set in 1926, according to 96 years of records kept by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Virtually all Northwest rivers popular with anglers are recording record low flows this spring and summer. The ramifications for fish and fishing seasons are still unfolding. Anglers should brace themselves for restrictions on some streams.

A notable exception to the low-water rule – which this column will get back to shortly – is Rocky Ford Creek, a trout fishery north of Moses Lake.

The Ice Age Floods that scoured and landscaped the region some 15,000 years ago unearthed this spring creek that bubbles out of scabrock at 57 degrees in a desert-like environment.

Man added rainbow trout and va-voom, a fishery was born.

This year, man also is adding more water.

A trout hatchery built where Indians once camped at the source of the stream has grown into an international player in trout production.

Trout Lodge, founded in 1945, will produce more than three million fish this year, providing a lot of the triploid trophy trout stocked into private and public waters in Washington as well as eggs shipped to 65 countries.

The higher irrigation-related flows already showing up in Rocky Ford Creek could be a boon to Trout Lodge.

“As long as we can bypass excess water, an increase in flows will allow us to increase production,” said manager Brent Hinners.

“Our natural flows have steadily degenerated over the years as the aquifers in Eastern Washington are being depleted. Getting more water would be wonderful.”

The dream appears to be coming true by way of a supplemental feed route to supply water to Potholes Reservoir. The Bureau of Reclamation project is a new feature of the Columbia Basin Project that’s been transforming central Washington with water pumped from the Columbia River since the 1950s.

Water projects in the basin are worth public attention for a lot of reasons, primarily because the public pays big money for them.

As the project to re-plumb the basin evolves, the fish and wildlife ecology is altered, sometimes with positive results, and sometimes for worse.

Flows have increased through the Frenchman Hills Wasteway to Potholes, and starting this spring, BuRec began releasing an additional 100 cubic feet per second of water out of Billy Clapp Lake through Pinto Dam. The Billy Clapp water flows toward Potholes Reservoir through the natural topography of Crab Creek.

Roughly 20 percent of that water migrates from Crab Creek underground through the Adrian Sink and emerges about six miles away – six weeks later with the natural flows into Rocky Ford Creek at the Trout Lodge hatchery.

Rocky Ford Creek, especially prized by fly fishermen in the winter and early spring, will likely flow higher year round under the new irrigation water delivery project, but nobody knows exactly how the fishery will look this year.

Anglers can expect to see higher flows year-round and up to 10 times more water in the creek at certain times of year.

“Our lowest flows at the hatchery are normally lowest around April 15 and highest around Sept. 15,” Hinners said. “This year we hit our low in early April but quickly turned up. We’re already at the high flows we’d normally see in the fall.”

The Bureau of Reclamation is responsible for excess water and where it ends up – a problem that may not surface until a big runoff event in Crab Creek.

Under normal operations, high flows aren’t likely to exceed 100 cfs, officials say. Weather and runoff played a role in April 1956 when Rocky Fork flows reached 200 cfs as Crab Creek flows measured at Irby spiked above 7,000 cfs.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Hinners said.

Weather, climate change and industrial water use play major roles in water that’s appearing or disappearing for fish and wildlife throughout the region.

The issues were explored in a Sunday Outdoors report on the Columbia River Project and deep-well irrigation.

Following are a few fishing-related observations from research on that story. They’re summarized from a presentation to the Inland Empire Fly Fishing Club by Guy Gregory, Department of Ecology senior hydrogeologist:

• Weather factors are likely the main reason Coffeepot and Fourth of July Lakes are lower than normal this year, not deep-well irrigation.

• Climate change is causing the overall downward trend of snowpack in this region over the past few decades.

• Weather also gets the blame for this year’s record-low snowpack. Charts show snowpack varies wildly from year to year. The early runoff depleted snowpack and created good fishing in the region’s streams four-to-six weeks earlier than normal.

• The St. Joe River normally peaks in May or early June. This year, flows peaked at more than 13,000 cfs in February, spiking again to nearly 14,000 cfs in March. Flows were down to 11,600 cfs by early May and steadily setting daily low-flow records every since then.

• “The St. Joe had the best Mother’s Day caddis anyone remembers,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it will happen next year.”

• Dam-controlled streams such as the Kootenai and Missouri will maintain better flows this year than streams originating from meager snowpacks.

• Other than the Columbia, the Clark Fork drainage has the best snowpack in region, but it’s still only 70 percent of normal. Expect more anglers on the Clark Fork this summer as flows diminish on other fishing streams.

• Lakes are low and levels are likely to be lower next year.

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email

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