Oregon Tech professor’s work to save endangered fish inspires $1.5 million federal grant for floating solar powered aeration systems

When Mason Terry, Ph.D., began his work on floating aeration systems in Upper Klamath Lake, his intention was to use his engineering knowledge and that of his Oregon Tech students to find ways to bring the endangered Shortnose and Lost River suckerfish population back to life.

Now, three years after his initial studies, the project has caught national attention and gained the support of Senator Jeff Merkley, whose office advocated to create a $1.5 million grant to expand systems such as Dr. Terry’s.

Dr. Terry, an alumnus of Oregon Tech’s Electronic Engineering Technology program and current director of the Oregon Renewable Energy Center (OREC) at Oregon Tech, launched the sucker recovery study with five students in 2019.

“The system itself is very simple, but the real work comes from collecting the data and analyzing what changes are made, and how those changes will impact the surrounding environment,” said Dr. Terry.

The floating solar aeration systems-built by the team-come equipped with an aeration pump and batteries which inject air to the lake bottom, where suckers typically live. The systems are similar to home aquariums but larger and solar-powered.

At a cost of about $3,000 per aerator, the concept requires deep investment to make a difference and needs qualified individuals to analyze the data.

The project is also of great local interest—Dr. Terry has formed a strong partnership with Klamath Tribes, whose ancestors valued the two fish species as an important food source. The Klamath Tribes continue to be involved in the project and monitor the system.

During the first two years of the study, $32,000 in OREC funds were used to build a total of eight systems. Since then, the project gained the attention of Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who toured the systems in 2019, after holding the first-ever Sucker Recovery Summit in 2018 to bring together interested parties and search for a both short- and long-term recovery path for the critical endangered species. Senator Merkley continues to lobby for long-term water and wildlife solutions in the Klamath Basin, including supporting strategies to restore fish habitat and scale-up ongoing efforts to restore healthy populations of Shortnose and Lost River suckers. The recent grant his office advocated for allocates $1.5 million to floating solar-powered aeration systems, which Dr. Terry has applied for and Senator Merkley supports.

“The Shortnose and Lost River sucker are important to both the well-being of the Klamath ecosystem and to the traditions of the Klamath Tribes, and we must do everything we can to ensure their survival,” Merkley said. “That’s why I’m grateful to Dr. Mason Terry and the students of Oregon Tech for taking an idea that came out of my first Sucker Recovery Summit and making it a reality. Their work to develop and execute aeration strategies may help create the conditions suckers need to survive, and that’s why I fought for a robust federal investment to support their continued efforts. This is an important step in the right direction, and I look forward to continuing to work with stakeholders across the region to support a healthy Klamath Basin for all.”

Continuing to work with Klamath Tribes, Dr. Terry and his team see the potential for real results with additional investment. Any grant funding received will first be applied to doubling the number of floating “islands,” deploying a tag reader to detect tagged fish, and creating a detailed water-conditioned measurement.