Portland General Electric Celebrates Earth Day by Refusing to Make Plans for Emergency Cold Water Releases to Protect Fish During Summer Heat

Dead spring Chinook, Deschutes River, just above Maupin, Summer 2015

Dead spring Chinook, Deschutes River, just above Maupin, Summer 2015

In December 2015, the Deschutes River Alliance, along with other conservation groups, met with Portland General Electric (PGE) to ask that emergency plans be drawn up so that in the event that lower Deschutes River water temperatures in the lower Deschutes River become dangerous for fish, water released from the Pelton-Round Butte dam complex could be quickly cooled to potentially provide relief from heat stress.

This request was made subsequent to the fish die-offs of last summer. In June and July of 2015, water in the Columbia River became too warm for upriver migrating sockeye salmon. They sought refuge in the lower Deschutes River (as migratory fish migrating up the Columbia River often do). Unfortunately, at the same time, PGE was increasing the temperature of water discharged from the Pelton-Round Butte Hydroelectric Project, using the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower. This was devastating, given that the total mortality for sockeye during up-river Columbia River migration last summer was 90 to 99% of the total run destined for Idaho. The Idaho-bound population included sockeye listed under the Endangered Species Act as “endangered.” Millions of dollars have been spent attempting to save this run of fish.

It is unclear if cooler water in the lower Deschutes River would have saved many of these fish. We do know that sockeye entered the lower Deschutes River seeking refuge in cooler water. But given that there was no effort to have an impact on this event by the Pelton-Round Butte dam operators, we’ll never know if the fish could have been saved.

Just days later, spring Chinook were noted to be dying in the lower Deschutes River between White Horse Rapids and Maupin. These fish might very well have become heat stressed in the Warm Springs River and subsequently, as a consequence of thermal stress, become infected with columnaris disease. They drifted downstream to the Deschutes River. Could these fish have been saved with cooler temperatures in the lower Deschutes River? Again, we’ll never know, as the temperature of water discharged from the dams remained high, and that water continued to get even warmer downstream from the dams. There was no attempt to provide safer conditions for fish. This occurred in a location where dam operations have an undeniable effect on temperature.

PGE’s rationale for its lack of action was two-fold:

“We don’t impact water temperatures downstream from the dams.”

And:

“We need to save cold water in the reservoir for fall time dam releases to cool the river for fall Chinook.”

We were subsequently informed by PGE that any changes to temperature management at the dams would have to be approved by the “Fish Committee” (a mostly advisory committee created by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license; the committee consists of representatives from The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation, multiple government agencies, and a single representative of the conservation groups who are signatories to the dam operating license; the committee meets once a month and meeting attendance is by invitation only).

The process in the dam operating license for responding to emergency conditions starts with a 30-day window for evaluation by the Fish Committee of the emergency situation. The Fish Committee then has another 30 days to evaluate a potential remedy for that situation. There is no deadline or benchmark for implementation of an emergency measure.

Given that situation, it seemed obvious to us, and others, that these measures would be woefully inadequate in responding to another heat-related emergency, such as the one responsible for the fish die-offs in 2015.   Instead, we believe that pre-determining emergency temperature management criteria, along with an operational response, would speed this process up to allow a rapid intervention that could potentially make a difference in river conditions that might increase fish survival. In December of 2015, we, along with other conservation groups, requested the company consider such needed measures.

This request was evaluated for four months. Finally, according to multiple sources, and confirmed by PGE, the request was refused by the Fish Committee. On Earth Day.

Shortly after the Fish Committee made this policy decision, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determined that Northwest fisheries managers must respond faster to mitigate future fish kills if similar warm-water conditions return.

NOAA stated, “Another suggestion is having plans in place to trigger fisheries managers into action.”

We concur.

Deschutes River Alliance: Cooler, cleaner H2O for the lower Deschutes River. 

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