Deschutes River

Local Streams

The Chinook salmon egg-taking operation at Tumwater Falls Park can be seen on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings from late September through early October. Stream Team Salmon Stewards will be on hand to answer questions from the public during these times as well as evenings and weekends. Come down to see the spectacular annual sight of the returning salmon!

A River Flows Through It:
Thurston County’s Deschutes River

The Deschutes River is the only stream flowing almost entirely within Thurston County into Puget Sound that is large enough to be called a river. Although smaller and less famous than the similarly named river in Oregon, the Deschutes River in Thurston County runs 57 miles from its headwaters in Lewis County, past Rainier and through Tumwater, until it reaches Budd Inlet in South Puget Sound. It drains a total area of 162 square miles.

Thurston County owns park land, including Deschutes Falls Park, in the upper Deschutes. This property has a spectacular view of a waterfall and unique rock formations. Unfortunately, the park is closed to the public at this time. Much of the upper Deschutes is characterized by forest and timber land, including land owned by Weyerhaeuser. The middle Deschutes is home to many small farms. The lower Deschutes is mostly urban, with the mouth flowing into the man-made Capitol Lake before it enters Puget Sound via Budd Inlet.

Local Streams

The name “Deschutes” comes from the French for “of the falls.” The series of falls along the river have played an important role in the human settlement of the area. The first human inhabitants of the area were native Coastal Salish groups. The ancestors of what is now known as the Squaxin Island Tribe used the lower end of the Deschutes River and Budd Inlet to harvest salmon and shellfish.

The oldest permanent American pioneer settlement in Washington was in Tumwater. In 1845, Michael T. Simmons led the first group of settlers to Tumwater Falls. The city was named New Market. The city’s early growth was influenced by the close proximity to the power-generating falls of the Deschutes River, nearby saltwater access and abundant timber.

Another pioneer in the Simmons party, George Bush, a free black man, led a second group south to the prairie area surrounding the middle Deschutes. The decision of the group to settle north of the Columbia River was made in part because an Oregon law prevented black people from owning land. Though Washington was still a part of the Oregon Territory, the ban was not enforced north of the Columbia River.

Early American settlers used the power of the falls on the lower Deschutes to mill lumber, when a wooden dam was constructed across the middle falls. Soon after, the falls were used to produce electricity. In 1896, Leopold Schmidt founded what became known as the Olympia Brewing Company in Tumwater along the Deschutes River. They used the nearby artesian wells to brew their beer and the slogan “It’s the Water” to promote its products.

The falls on the lower Deschutes River also had an influence on the species of fish in the river. Unlike most rivers in the Pacific Northwest, the Deschutes did not have a native run of salmon. It is widely believed that the falls prevented the Deschutes from having a native run. In the 1950’s, local fishermen built fish ladders around the falls and imported Chinook salmon from the Green River to start a Deschutes salmon run.

Today, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) operates a fish facility at Tumwater Falls Park. Each fall, the WDFW facility harvests 4.8 million eggs from Chinook female salmon. The eggs, and milt from the male salmon, are transported to a hatchery for incubation. In the spring, the juvenile Chinook salmon are brought back to the Tumwater Falls facility and placed in holding ponds for a few weeks to “imprint” on the water of the Deschutes River.

Historically, the Deschutes River flowed naturally into Budd Inlet at the bottom of Tumwater Falls. Thirteen foot tides were recorded at the falls. In 1911, a plan was developed to dam the river to create a reflecting pool for the Capitol building. Forty years later, in 1951, the dam and surrounding Deschutes Parkway were constructed at what is now 5th Avenue in downtown Olympia. This created a fresh water lake where the estuary had once been.

Another alteration to the Deschutes River watershed occurred when Black Lake Ditch was created in the 1920’s to drain wetlands for agriculture and industry. The ditch connected Black Lake to Percival Creek and Budd Inlet. Because of the ditch, Black Lake now drains in two directions: south to the Black River and onward towards Grays Harbor via the Chehalis River and northeast to Percival Creek, Capitol Lake and Puget Sound.

The Deschutes River is under pressure from growth, resulting in many small, uncontrolled sources of pollution entering the river. Water quality monitoring revealed that measurements of pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature, fine sediment and fecal coliform were not optimal, thereby triggering the TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) process. The TMDL process was established by Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act to establish limits on pollutants that can be discharged to the waterbody and still allow state standards to be met.

There has been recent discussion on whether to remove the 5th Avenue dam and to at least partially restore the estuary. The Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Plan (CLAMP) was developed with scientific research and local political input. CLAMP recommends estuary restoration. There is heated local debate over the issue. Two groups, pro-estuary Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team (DERT) and pro-lake Capitol Lake Improvement and Protection Association (CLIPA), have been formed to represent both sides of the issue. This debate is sure to continue into the future, and so will the importance of the Deschutes River to the wildlife and people who benefit from its resources and beauty.