Aug 5, 2016

Deschutes River Alliance - Need To Know Issues

The Deschutes River Alliance

The Deschutes River Alliance (DRA) is a nonprofit, science-based advocacy organization seeking solutions to threats to the health of the lower Deschutes River. We advocate for improved water quality, a healthy ecosystem, and for the establishment and protection of robust populations of resident and anadromous fish throughout the entire Deschutes watershed.
  • Since 2013, the DRA has worked tirelessly to determine the source and extent of significant negative environmental changes occurring in the lower Deschutes River. We are working to create a strong scientific case supporting our understanding of these changes so that we can effectively advocate for solutions to these issues. 
  • The DRA has been deeply engaged with communities in the Deschutes basin to assess the social and economic impacts that the currently degrading river conditions are having throughout north central Oregon. 
  • The DRA has pursued both advocacy and collaborative approaches to engage the managing agencies, the dam operators, and others in the environmental issues that we continue to research and document in the lower Deschutes River. 
Our goal is to move collectively toward management strategies that improve anadromous fish reintroduction in the upper Deschutes basin, while returning the lower Deschutes River to its previous healthy condition.

Pelton Round Butte and the Lower Deschutes River

The Pelton Round Butte (PRB) Hydroelectric Project (“the Project”) is a complex of three dams and associated developments located on the Deschutes River near Madras, Oregon. Round Butte Dam, the uppermost of the three dams, forms Lake Billy Chinook, impounding several miles of the Metolius, Crooked, and Deschutes rivers. Portland General Electric (PGE) is the majority owner of the Project, and PGE is responsible for day-to-day Project operations. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon (CTWS) are the minority owner of the Project and collaborate with PGE on management decisions.

There are no impoundments on the Deschutes River downstream of PRB, so Project discharges play a central role in water temperature and quality in the 100 miles of the lower Deschutes River between PRB and the Columbia River. Before 2010, Project water discharge consisted exclusively of water drawn from near the bottom of Lake Billy Chinook. These discharges, generally cold and of excellent water quality, created a healthy and vibrant aquatic ecosystem downstream in the lower Deschutes River. The stable and productive aquatic environment created by these releases attracted fishermen and other recreationists from all over the world, providing significant economic benefits to the region. The cold water historically found in the lower river has also provided an important thermal refuge in the summer for adult salmon and steelhead swimming upstream through the Columbia River.

“Selective Water Withdrawal” and Changes to the Ecology of the Lower Deschutes River

These conditions in the lower Deschutes River began to change rapidly in 2010, when PGE began operating a newly constructed Selective Water Withdrawal (SWW) tower above Round Butte Dam in Lake Billy Chinook. The SWW facility is designed to draw water from the surface of the reservoir, which is much warmer and of drastically worse quality than the water at depth. Now, for much of the year, water discharged downstream by the Project consists exclusively of this warmer, poor quality surface water. During the summer months the surface water is blended with water from depth before being discharged below the project.

PGE has stated two purposes for the SWW facility. First, it was hoped that the SWW tower would aid in the reintroduction of salmon and steelhead above the PRB complex: drawing water from near the reservoir surface would create currents that would, in theory, guide out-migrating juveniles to a collection facility at the SWW tower. These fish would then be placed in trucks, transported below the Project, and released. The second justification for the SWW facility was to help the Project meet various water quality standards in the lower Deschutes River and the Project reservoirs.

Quite simply, the SWW facility has failed to meet either of these objectives. With regard to downstream fish passage, the hoped-for surface currents in Lake Billy Chinook are not successfully guiding juvenile salmon and steelhead through the reservoir in substantial numbers. PGE has reported survival rates of juvenile salmonids migrating through the reservoir that are too low to support self-sustaining populations of anadromous fish.

Meanwhile, SWW operations have had a negative effect on water quality in the lower Deschutes River. Project discharges now regularly exceed state water quality standards for temperature and pH, and fail to meet dissolved oxygen requirements agreed to in the Project’s federal licensing process. These unlawful discharges are resulting in distressing changes to the aquatic ecosystem of the lower river. Since 2010, DRA has researched and documented the following negative changes:

  • An increase in water temperature during the spring and summer months;
  • Rampant proliferation of nuisance algae blooms throughout the full 100 miles of the lower river, resulting in negative impacts on the ecology and use of the river; and
  • Altered timing of aquatic insect hatches, decreased abundance of adult aquatic insects, and a dramatic increase in worms and snails.

As a result of these ecological changes, the lower Deschutes River is becoming increasingly unrecognizable to the people who have lived, worked and recreated on it for the last 50 years.

SWW Operations Have Consistently Violated the Clean Water Act

As part of the Project’s federal licensing, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) issued several water quality requirements for the Project pursuant to the federal Clean Water Act. These requirements, for criteria such as temperature, dissolved oxygen, and pH, were designed to protect the ecological health of the lower river.

Unfortunately, since the SWW tower began operations, PGE has consistently violated these water quality requirements. Over the last five years, DRA has documented over 1,200 instances where Project discharges have failed to meet the agreed-upon requirements, including at least 350 temperature violations, over 200 pH violations, and nearly 750 dissolved oxygen violations. Each of these instances is a violation of the Clean Water Act.

To date, ODEQ has not enforced the Project’s water quality requirements, or ensured that PGE changes Project operation to attain compliance. Instead, ODEQ has worked with PGE, behind closed doors, to weaken the relevant requirements and allow PGE to continue operating the Project to meet the company’s economic and other objectives—rather than to protect the health of the river and its fishes. These “interim agreements” with PGE were made in violation of Oregon law requiring public notice and the opportunity for public comment, and illustrate a troubling relationship between PGE and ODEQ, the state agency tasked with protecting water quality in the lower Deschutes River.

Economic Impacts of SWW Operations

The ecological changes to the lower Deschutes River, following implementation of SWW operations and PGE’s failure to comply with water quality requirements, are now impacting the economy of north central Oregon. As the fishing experience in the lower Deschutes River begins to degrade due to Project operations, demand at local businesses frequented by anglers is in decline. The community of Maupin, whose local economy depends on river recreation, has reported serious declines in angling business revenue in 2015, which has translated to reported revenue losses from hotels, restaurants, and other businesses in the area. The business community in Maupin firmly believes that these declines are due to negative changes to the Deschutes River resulting from SWW operations. Additional reports of lost revenue have come from angling businesses in Bend, The Dalles, and Hood River.

The DRA’s Goals for the Deschutes River Basin

The DRA is working hard to restore the healthy, productive aquatic ecosystem that existed in the lower Deschutes River before SWW operations began. These efforts—which are being waged alongside local businesses, anglers, Deschutes River users, and citizens like you—aim to achieve three ultimate goals:

  1. Abandonment of all surface water discharges from Round Butte Dam into the lower Deschutes River;
  2. PGE compliance with ODEQ’s original water quality requirements for Project operations—not the requirements from the secretly modified “interim agreements”; and
  3. Successful reintroduction of anadromous fish above the Project, without negatively impacting the lower Deschutes River in the process.

Additional Information

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For regular updates on the Deschutes River Alliance and issues on the lower Deschutes River, please sign up for our email newsletter (from DRA website):

To support the Deschutes River Alliance, please consider making a donation (from DRA website):

Thank you for your interest in the Deschutes River Alliance and your concern for the lower Deschutes River. Science and advocacy are the fundamental tenets of the DRA’s approach to improving and safeguarding the ecological health of the lower Deschutes River, and we believe that we are making progress in our mission. Our work would not be possible without your support. From all of us at the DRA, sincerely thank you. / PO Box 440 / Maupin, OR / 97037 ~ Cooler, Cleaner H2O

1 comment :

  1. Wow, what a one-sided article. How about some background on how the salmon and steelhead populations of the Columbia River have drastically declined, and why they are trying to reintroduce anadromous fish in the upper Deschutes. And using the last 50 years as the historical baseline? Please. Historically, the lower Deschutes was probably low and warm in most summers, what we've had in the last 50 years is the true anomaly.


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