Sometimes the return of one adult salmon or steelhead is more exciting than runs of hundreds or thousands. That’s the situation this year in Central Oregon’s Deschutes River Basin.

A massive fish reintroduction effort above the Pelton Rounde Butte hydro project saw its first steelhead return this month.

The picture of the fish (above) has been circulating among the many people who have helped install a $100 million fish passage project, overhaul stream habitat above the dams, and start up a new crop of fish to replace the ones that were lost when the dams were built.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said MerryAnn Moore, who lives on Whychus Creek, a tributary above the dams where the steelhead smolts were released last year. “It’s like our first grandkid just got to college. This is what we all dreamed about.”

Even with all the work that has gone into the project so far, coordinators say they’re still in the early stages of replacing historic runs to Whychus and the Metolius and Crooked rivers above the Pelton and Round Butte dams. The adult fish still can’t get up around the dams on their own, and there aren’t enough adults yet for them to spawn naturally.

But the return of the first reintroduced steelhead, chinook and sockeye to the Pelton dam fish trap this year suggests there are more on the way.

As part of the relicensing process for the Pelton Round Butte hydro project, Portland General Electric and the Warm Springs tribes put more than $100 million into an underwater tower that adjusts water temperatures in the Lake Billy Chinook reservoir to help young salmon and steelhead make it down the Deschutes and Columbia rivers and out to the Pacific ocean.

The dams blocked the natural route for several runs of salmon and steelhead in the 1960s, and while adult fish had a route around the dams to reach their spawning grounds, their babies couldn’t find their way out of the reservoirs because of the dramatic changes in water temperature. That interrupted the life cycle of the fish and prevented the runs from reproducing.

In 1968, a fish hatchery was built below the dams to replace the lost fish runs. Since 1995, a huge team of 22 organizations and agencies has been working on way to redesign the project to help young fish downstream. Meanwhile, a huge habitat restoration effort has been underway to make sure the returning fish will have a place to spawn and their babies will have a place to feed and grow (see Oregon Field Guide video above for more on that effort).

Mike Gauvin, mitigation coordinator for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said biologists have been “planting” baby steelhead above the dams since 2007, and the fish tower has been operating for two full years to help them out to sea.

But this is the first year they’ve seen returning adults from the fish they planted.

Four other tagged steelhead from the reintroduction project have been detected at Bonneville Dam. And the first reintroduced sockeye and chinook found their way back this year, too.

“It is all pretty exciting,” said Don Ratliff, project coordinator for PGE. “We’re in this transition where significant numbers of fish are moving to the ocean. … The fish this year are the first vanguard of what we hope will be bigger runs in the future.”