A photo of a juvenile Chinook salmon that was reportedly the first to use a $100 million fish collection device meant to restore salmon runs in the Upper Deschutes Basin.

It’s been four decades since salmon were able to complete their circuitous life journey to and from central Oregon’s upper Deschutes River basin.

This week one of the species took the first step towards restoring the upper basin’s historic runs, which were wiped out by the construction of hydroelectric dams.

On Wednesday, the first salmon swam into one of the garage-sized collection bays of a $100 million dollar tower designed to redirect flows in Lake Billy Chinook so migrating fish can be collected and trucked around the dams.

Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, which co-own the Pelton Round Butte hydropower dams on the Deschutes near Madras, have been building the 270-foot tall underwater tower at Lake Billy Chinook since 2007. View full sizePortland General ElectricAn artist’s rendering of a new fish-collecting tower on the Deschutes River.

But in April, part of the tower collapsed, setting the project back months.

Portland General ElectricAn artist’s rendering of a new fish-collecting tower on the Deschutes River.

However, earlier this week crews finally finished assembling the major components of the tower.

Then on Wednesday morning the first fish found its way inside.

“It was about 6:45 a.m. on December 2 – and, it was a little Chinook. My understanding is that the tower in Lake Billy Chinook is currently being tested and this was the first fish to move past the screens and into the sorting area,” Ryan Houston, executive director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, wrote in an e-mail. “A new chapter begins!”

The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife and others have been planting juvenile fish in upper basin waterways like the Metolius and Crooked rivers in anticipation of the completion of the tower, which is designed to correct the currents in the lake that confuse fish on their way downstream to the ocean, where they mature before returning to their birth rivers to spawn.

PGE said they will be testing the tower over the coming weeks to prepare for when the fish begin migrating in earnest several months from now.

“My understanding is that a few fishy ‘tourists’ have found their way in, but that’s about the extent of it,” Steve Corson, a spokesman for PGE, said in an e-mail.

“We’ve had about a dozen fish enter the system so far, a few of which have already been transported downstream and released to seek their destiny,” Corson said. “We’re actually surprised that any Chinook have shown up at this point, but apparently a few of the juveniles that are expected in the spring get impatient and actually start moving in the fall.”

— Matthew Preusch

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