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Big water

The Rogue River is higher, faster and has more water than it has for six years, bringing new rafting hazards and a late return for spring chinook salmon.

With a snowpack above Lost Creek Lake now at 123 percent of average, NOAA's (agency corrected from previous version) Northwest River Forecast Center is predicting inflows high enough that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be releasing anywhere from 10 percent to nearly double the water from last year into the upper Rogue, depending on the week.

State fishery and water managers are in the midst of finalizing their outflow recommendations into the Rogue through fall, and early drafts call for releases of 3,000 cubic feet per second of water through June and early July, almost twice the releases seen throughout all of July last year.

Outflows into the Rogue are not projected to drop below 2,000 cfs until after Labor Day as water and fish managers grapple with a heavy water year coming just two years removed from a three-year drought — a scenario that will alter salmon runs and rafting activity.

"It'll be the most water we've seen since 2011, and it's going to change the dynamics considerably," says Pete Samarin, a fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife helping set Lost Creek releases for the maximum benefit of Rogue salmon runs. "There'll be some concerns. There will be a lot of people on the river who are used to drought conditions."

The differences from last year to this year will be even more dramatic in the Applegate River Basin, where summer inflows are projected to be 163 percent of average into an already almost-full reservoir.

In the Bear Creek Basin, irrigators have already begun filling canals from reservoirs that are already as full as they are going to get, according to the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

Howard Prairie and Emigrant lakes already are full, while Hyatt Lake is being held at 64 percent of full so contractors can add seismic retrofits to Hyatt Dam.

That has the Talent Irrigation District regularly increasing and decreasing releases from those projects into Bear Creek to ensure those projects don't overfill — a far different scenario than what plagued the district during drought years.

"High water has its own problems," TID Manager Jim Pendleton says. "But it's definitely more fun to work off the tops of these reservoirs than off the bottoms."

Augmenting summer Rogue flows to enhance chinook salmon runs is the primary rationale behind the water-release strategy crafted each summer by ODFW to get the biggest bang for Lost Creek's watery investment.

Releases typically are higher in May and June to cool lower Rogue flows and curb natural warmwater diseases during the bulk of the spring chinook push upstream, then releases are upped again in mid-August to do the same for fall chinook.

Flows are backed off in mid-September to corral spawning wild spring chinook in the upper Rogue.

Lost Creek Lake surface levels eyed by wakeboarders and waterskiers are considered secondary benefits for the stored water, and forecasts predict the lake's two boat ramps will be usable through Labor Day.

River-watchers saw a big taste of what lots of water flowing into an almost-full reservoir looks like last weekend, when a spike in air temperatures triggered a snowmelt that saw runoff into Lost Creek Lake climb on Saturday to 6,800 cfs, with the Corps releases peaking at 6,156 cfs — about twice that of an average early May day, according to the Corps.

That triggered Rogue flows at Dodge Bridge near Eagle Point to record levels for May 6, according to the USGS.

This weekend's forecast of rain on the snowpack is forecast to trigger another inflow spike that is forecast to peak around 4,670 cfs as the reservoir remains slightly more than a foot from full.

"We're not even showing us getting back to full again," says Jim Buck, the Corps Rogue Project operations manager. "But if we were to have that kind of warm weather again next week, we could see some noticeable increases in the inflow."

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Water is released Thursday at Lost Creek Dam as water managers deal with major runoff from this year's large snowpacks. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]