Poor Fish Returns to Pelton Round Butte, Part 2: Where Do We Go From Here?

Option 1

The Selective Water Withdrawal tower above Round Butte Dam. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Earlier this month on the DRA blog, we provided an overview of adult fish return numbers to date for the Pelton Round Butte fish reintroduction program (of which the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower is the centerpiece). Those numbers are pretty disappointing; and likely not just for us, but for everyone involved in the project.

At the DRA, we have raised concerns several times—most recently in an October 30 letter to several agencies, which can be read here—about low adult returns. The responses we’ve heard from supporters of the current program primarily fall into two categories. The first is to attribute the poor return numbers to current climate conditions. The second is to argue that the program simply needs more time. Both of these responses are worth examining.

Climate Conditions

The low numbers of returning adult fish are regularly blamed on current climate conditions. Indeed, there is no doubt that climate conditions—and subsequent poor ocean conditions—have created survival challenges for all anadromous fish. However, these conditions are not new.  They have plagued salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin for at least two decades. However, as far as we can tell these inherent difficulties were not included in the planning or acknowledged uncertainties regarding the Pelton Round Butte fish reintroduction program.  And not all years since reintroduction was initiated have been low snowpack or low precipitation years.  2017 was a remarkably high precipitation year with near record-breaking snowpack. 2011 also saw robust precipitation and runoff.  In other words, we continue to see annual precipitation variations.

With that said, there appears to be little hope for higher average precipitation levels as we move into the future (see Mote, et al, Dramatic Declines in Snowpack in the Western US, Nature: Climate and Atmospheric Science, March 2, 2018, and https://www.opb.org/news/article/snowpack-west-oregon-washington-climate-change/).  The long-term trends all indicate that in coming years the Western U.S. will see a continued decline in precipitation, along with reduced snowpack.

In other words, these climate conditions are here to stay. In our view, any hope or reliance on increased precipitation or other improved climate conditions for the benefit of the fish reintroduction program appears misguided.

It’s Going to Take Time

Another common refrain we hear from the more ardent supporters of the fish reintroduction program is that more time is needed. They point out that a program like this has never been attempted before, and argue that the system operators simply require more years of research, data collection, and “adaptive management” to get things right.

However, we have not seen a clear explanation as to what exactly will happen with more time to make the program more successful. What factor or variable will change over time that will lead to better results?  How much better will the results be?  Exactly how much more time is needed?  What are these predictions based on?

We believe it is critical that if this program is to continue, then there must be answers to these fundamental questions. To this point, we have not seen convincing arguments, plans, or data demonstrating that more time will lead to greater reintroduction success. All of this underscores the need for firm goals for the program, on a specified timeline, that the public can access and review in coming years.

The Future

The costs of this program have been enormous.  We have not seen a thorough cost analysis, but we know based on numbers released to the public that the costs for planning, studies, construction, and implementation likely exceed $150 million. And this does not include costs to the lower Deschutes River ecosystem—and the communities that depend on it—resulting from an increased nutrient load being transferred below the Project due to surface water withdrawal at Round Butte Dam.

Given all of this, and the fact that trend lines for adult returns are moving in the wrong direction, it only seems reasonable to ask for a critical analysis and review of the current fish reintroduction program.

We continue to maintain that an expert panel, external to PGE and the agencies comprising the Project’s “Fish Committee,” should be convened to analyze the current program and assess for modifications that could lead to significantly improved performance.  If significant improvements in adult fish returns are not possible, then it is time to consider new fish mitigation alternatives, as contemplated by the Pelton Round Butte Project’s license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Without significant changes in operation, calls for more time will only delay what ultimately must be done to provide real mitigation.

Fish passage at the Pelton Round Butte Project was attempted when the dams were first constructed.  A fish ladder was built (at the time, the longest fish ladder in the world) and a gondola at the upper end of the fish ladder lifted adult upstream-migrating fish over Pelton Dam.  But juvenile fish couldn’t find their way downstream through Lake Billy Chinook or through Lake Simtustus.  When those efforts proved unsuccessful, measures were quickly taken to find alternative methods of mitigation for the lost runs of steelhead, spring Chinook and sockeye.

We have requested that the relevant agencies identify potential alternative fish mitigation plans, should the current reintroduction program also prove unsuccessful. We believe it is time to think about the future of fish mitigation at the Pelton Round Butte Project.  If it is simply more of the same, we fear the future is bleak for anadromous fish above the dams, and for the health of the lower Deschutes River.


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DRA Brings Clean Water Act Lawsuit to the Ninth Circuit

Photo 3

Photo by Brian O’Keefe

The DRA’s important Clean Water Act lawsuit against Portland General Electric is moving to the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. This afternoon, DRA notified Oregon’s Federal District Court that we will be appealing that Court’s recent decision in the case.

DRA brought this lawsuit in the summer of 2016. We are seeking to enforce requirements—for temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen—found in the Clean Water Act certification for the Pelton Round Butte Hydroelectric Project. After several notable victories in the case—affirming  the authority of citizen groups to bring lawsuits like this one—we suffered our first setback in early August. At that time, the Court ruled against DRA for the first time, finding that PGE was not in fact violating its water quality certification. This ruling came despite an undisputed record demonstrating hundreds of instances where Project discharges exceeded the certification’s numeric water quality standards.

We believe it is essential that this fight continue, and are eager to present our case to the Ninth Circuit. Under the Court’s recent decision, PGE is not required to meet numeric water quality standards at Pelton Round Butte, or even to take the certification’s specified actions to come into compliance with those standards. In short, under the Court’s interpretation, the certification does not ensure compliance with Oregon’s water quality standards.

We believe this interpretation is contrary to the mandates of the Clean Water Act, and of the Pelton Round Butte water quality certification itself. The failure of the Project to meet these critical water quality standards has coincided with severe ecological changes in the lower Deschutes River. These standards were developed for the express purpose of protecting aquatic life, and we will continue to fight to make sure these standards are enforced.

Today marks the next step in our journey to protect and restore the lower Deschutes River. We believe this action is essential for the future of the river we love. Further, the Clean Water Act must remain a powerful, enforceable tool to protect this country’s waters for future generations.

As always, this fight would not be possible without your support. Thank you for all you’ve helped us accomplish, and for joining us as we move forward with our efforts.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo by Brian O’Keefe


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Another Year of Poor Fish Returns to Pelton Round Butte, Part 1: How Long Will We Let This Continue?

Option 1

The Selective Water Withdrawal tower above Round Butte Dam. Photo by Greg McMillan.

The Selective Water Withdrawal tower above Round Butte Dam was designed with an ambitious goal in mind: to return self-sustaining, harvestable numbers of salmon and steelhead to the upper Deschutes Basin. Now, more than eleven years into reintroduction efforts, it’s time to take a close look at the program. In particular: just how many adult fish is the current program actually returning each year? These numbers can be difficult to glean from PGE’s various PR materials, so we’ve gathered the relevant data and present it below. Unfortunately, the numbers tell a clear story: current reintroduction efforts are simply failing to produce meaningful numbers of returning adult fish.

Background

Portland General Electric began operating the SWW tower in late 2009. (The first juvenile salmon and steelhead had been planted in upper basin tributaries in 2007). The tower is designed to create surface currents in the forebay of Round Butte Dam (the uppermost of the three dams, and the dam which forms Lake Billy Chinook). In theory, these surface currents would help guide out-migrating juvenile fish through the reservoir to a collection facility at the tower. From there, the fish are trucked below the Project and released into the lower Deschutes River.

On this blog, we have frequently highlighted the negative ecological changes in the lower Deschutes River since SWW tower operations commenced. The tower was constructed to draw Lake Billy Chinook surface water—which is primarily composed of Crooked River water—through Round Butte Dam, to ultimately be discharged into the lower Deschutes. Since the tower began operations, river users have observed and documented massive proliferations of nuisance algae, impacts to aquatic insect populations and hatch timing, increased prevalence of fish diseases, and a marked decline in birds and bats. The changes in river conditions are causing real damage to the Maupin economy, and to other people and businesses throughout the region who depend on a healthy Deschutes River for their livelihoods.

How Many Fish is the Reintroduction Program Actually Producing?

Now, nearly nine years after the tower began operating, it is fair to ask what the people of Oregon are receiving in exchange for these negative impacts to the lower river. Specifically, how successful has the fish reintroduction program been? The often-stated goal for the program has been to re-establish self-sustaining, harvestable numbers of sockeye, steelhead, and spring Chinook above the Project. So how many returning adult fish is the program actually producing?

These numbers aren’t easy to find in PGE’s regular promotional materials. Below, we have gathered adult return data from PGE’s annual reports to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and from the PGE website. The numbers are not encouraging.

Spring Chinook 

In reintroduction planning documents, ODFW identified a “vision of success” of 1,000 returning adult spring Chinook each year. This number is based on assumptions about the ability of available habitat to to produce juvenile spring Chinook. But this year, only 5 (five) spring Chinook that originated above the Project as part of the reintroduction effort returned to the Pelton Trap. This year’s dismal return is down from only 20 returning fish in 2017, and reflects an ongoing downward trend.

Chinook

Source: Portland General Electric and Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, 2012-2017 Fish Passage Annual Reports; and Portland General Electric, Deschutes Daily Fish Counts, available at https://www.portlandgeneral.com/corporate-responsibility/environmental-stewardship/water-quality-habitat-protection/fish-counts-fish-runs/deschutes-daily-fish-counts


Steelhead

The numbers of steelhead produced by the reintroduction program are similarly grim. ODFW’s “vision for success” for the program was 955 returning adult steelhead each year. The 2017-18 run year saw only 25 (twenty-five) Project-origin steelhead return to the Pelton Trap. Further, the number of returning steelhead adults has declined in each run year since 2012-13.

Steelhead

Source: Portland General Electric and Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, 2012-2017 Fish Passage Annual Reports; and Portland General Electric, Deschutes Daily Fish Counts, available at https://www.portlandgeneral.com/corporate-responsibility/environmental-stewardship/water-quality-habitat-protection/fish-counts-fish-runs/deschutes-daily-fish-counts


Sockeye

Finally, only 39 Project-origin sockeye have returned to the Pelton Trap this year. These low sockeye numbers are similar to previous years, with the exception of 2016, when 529 sockeye thought to be of Project origin arrived at the trap. DRA has not seen a numeric target for adult sockeye return goals, but the numbers to this point are considerably lower than what is needed for successful reintroduction.

Sockeye

Source: Portland General Electric and Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, 2012-2017 Fish Passage Annual Reports; and Portland General Electric, Deschutes Daily Fish Counts, available at https://www.portlandgeneral.com/corporate-responsibility/environmental-stewardship/water-quality-habitat-protection/fish-counts-fish-runs/deschutes-daily-fish-counts


It is Time to Re-Evaluate the Reintroduction Program

In sum, Project-origin steelhead and spring Chinook returns are lower than any point since the reintroduction program started, and demonstrate a continued downward trend. Similarly, 2018 sockeye return numbers are among the lowest on record. And for all three species, the numbers are orders of magnitude below ODFW’s reintroduction plan goals.

As we have regularly stated, DRA strongly supports the goal of reintroducing salmon and steelhead to the upper Deschutes Basin. But any reintroduction efforts must demonstrate, at each step along the way, a reasonable chance for success—something that cannot be said of current operations. And any reintroduction effort must not harm the water quality and ecology of the Deschutes River below the dams.

In short, it is time to re-evaluate the merits of the current fish reintroduction program at Pelton Round Butte. In exchange for ongoing harm to the ecology of the lower Deschutes River, the people of Oregon are receiving just a handful of the promised returning adult fish each year.

Despite attempts by the dam operators and agencies to improve return success, meaningful improvements have not been forthcoming. Therefore, we believe it is time for a comprehensive external review of current Program failures, using outside, unbiased expertise. The Pelton Round Butte “Fish Passage Plan,” which is incorporated into the Project’s federal license, contemplates that fish passage using the SWW tower may not ultimately be successful, and that the operators may be required to turn to “non-passage” mitigation efforts for anadromous fish. If an outside assessment of the current program cannot identify operational changes that will lead to a reasonable chance of greater success in a defined time period, then it is time to explore other potential mitigation efforts. The millions of dollars being spent on the current fish reintroduction operations should be quickly diverted to measures that have been proven to produce more adult fish. In particular, habitat restoration in tributaries such as Trout Creek could greatly enhance prospects for wild fish recovery in the basin.

Option 2

Photo by Brian O’Keefe


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