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Rains bring Bear Creek, Applegate Lake to all-time highs

By MARK FREEMAN
Of the Mail Tribune

MEDFORD — Yet another storm front hit Southern Oregon, dumping enough rain to make this the fourth-wettest October on record in Medford and setting stream-flow records for Bear Creek.

It also led to some unique, out-of-the-box, water-release plans at Applegate Lake.

More than two-thirds of an inch of rain was measured by Thursday afternoon at the Medford airport, which sent record flows down Bear Creek in downtown Medford for this date.

The rain also pushed the monthly total to 5.2 inches, which surpassed the 4.89 inches recorded in 1924, which had been the city's fourth-wettest month, according to the Weather Service.

With as much as a half-inch forecast for Saturday and possibly a quarter-inch Sunday, this October threatens to eclipse the 5.89 inches that fell in October 1956, Medford's third-wettest month, according to the Weather Service.

“We might get to number three, depending upon how the rest of the month plays out,” Weather Service meteorologist Michelle Cohen says. “We still have a few days left to bring it up.”

It would take an ark-ish storm for Medford to hit the all-time October record of 9.16 inches of rain set in 1950, according to the Weather Service. The second-wettest October was in 1962, when 6.27 inches fell.

The average month-to-date rainfall at the airport for October is .89 inches, Cohen says. The normal amount for all of October is 1.13 inches, she says.

In the Applegate Basin, so much water has been collected in Applegate Lake that it's pitting that project's two main purposes — flood control and fisheries enhancement — against each other.

With the highest recorded inflows there since Applegate Dam went online in 1980, the lake is now 25 feet too high for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which needs to lower it by Nov. 15 to create flood-control capacity.

But this is also the peak spawning time for wild fall chinook salmon in the Applegate River, the biggest single sub-population of fall chinook in the Rogue River Basin.

The Corps normally would be boosting the flows a little now and would keep it that way until Nov. 15. But normal releases would push spawning salmon toward the sides of the river, and biologists say the eggs they would lay there would dry up and die later this winter, because there is not enough stored water to sustain those water levels until the eggs hatch in the spring.

“It's an extraordinarily unique situation,” says Pete Samarin, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist. “I can't find anything that remotely resembles this.”

At Samarin's behest, the Corps, beginning at 5 a.m. Friday, raised the outflow from 350 cubic feet per second of water to 550 cfs, then up it another 200 cfs every two hours until it hits 1,550 cfs at 5 p.m., according to the Corps.

The flows will hold there until 1 a.m. Sunday, when the Corps will walk the releases down 100 cfs each hour until it hits 850 cfs. The plan is for that flow to remain until 1 a.m. Monday, when another round of hourly 100-cfs reductions will walk it down to 350 cfs early Monday, the Corps says.

The idea is to have the chinook temporarily stop spawning while literally going with the flow.

“If you time it right and don't leave it going too long, they'll just move over and then move back to the channel to go back to spawning,” Samarin says.

Samarin estimates that the plan should save at least 90 percent of the spawning chinook, and biologists along the river Friday will be there again Tuesday to keep an eye on the salmon's responses to the changes.

“This will be a well-monitored event,” Samarin says.

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Information from: Mail Tribune, http://www.mailtribune.com/

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