Save the Date for the DRA’s Second Annual Gathering and Auction!

Mark your calendar and register now for the Second Annual Deschutes River Alliance Gathering and Auction. Last February’s premier event sold out, and we expect to sell out again, so don’t forget to register early.

REGISTER HERE

The afternoon event will feature complimentary wine from Lange Estate Winery & Vineyards, beer brewed by Freebridge Brewing Co. and a delicious selection of hors d’oeuvres. There will be plenty of time to visit with friends, followed by an auction full of great items, multiple custom-designed Oregon fishing trips with top guides, a relaxing 10 day stay for two in a beachfront condominium in Ambergris Caye, Belize; an exciting week for two in Zihuatanejo, Mexico; guided fishing for two and three-night stay in an over-the-water cabana in Roatan, Honduras; top quality fly fishing gear and much, much more.

More details about auction items and the day’s events will be sent to you as the Gathering gets closer. Meanwhile, be sure to mark your calendar, plan to attend and register early!

This winter the DRA is entering a new phase in our legal and advocacy efforts, including our critical lawsuit against Portland General Electric to enforce water quality requirements at the Pelton Round Butte Project. To ensure that we prevail in this fight for the river’s future, we need the support of people like you – people who are passionate about protecting and restoring the river we all love. All proceeds from the event will benefit the DRA’s ongoing work on behalf of the lower Deschutes River.

Thank You to Our Sponsors!

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pH Violations in the Lower Deschutes River: Why it’s Happening, and Why it Matters

Round Butte Dam and the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower.

There’s been a great deal of focus on how Selective Water Withdrawal (SWW) operations at Pelton Round Butte have impacted temperatures in the lower Deschutes River. It’s hard not to focus on temperature: it’s something we can easily sense and monitor, and increased spring and summer temperatures have led to some alarming changes in the lower river these last few years.

But to understand the full extent of the ecological changes occurring in the lower river, there’s another criteria that’s perhaps even more important: hydrogen ion concentration, better known as pH. pH levels in the lower Deschutes River have increased dramatically since SWW operations began, and discharges from the Pelton Round Butte complex have routinely violated Oregon’s pH standard. Why is this happening, and how are these increased pH levels impacting the lower Deschutes River?

What is pH?

pH is a numeric scale used to indicate the acidity or basicity of a water-based solution. Pure water is neutral, with a pH of 7 standard units (SU). Solutions with a pH above 7 SU are basic (alkaline), and solutions with a pH below 7 SU are acidic. pH is measured on a logarithmic scale, meaning that a pH of 9 is ten times more alkaline than a pH of 8.

In freshwater systems like the Deschutes River, high pH levels are often the result of increased photosynthetic activity. This is because photosynthesis lowers the dissolved CO2 concentration in the water, which in turn reduces the carbonic acid concentration, which raises pH. As a result, high pH levels are a useful indicator of excessive algal growth and nutrient enrichment in freshwater systems.

Post-SWW Violations of Oregon’s pH Standard

Oregon’s water quality standard for pH in the Deschutes Basin is a minimum of 6.5 and maximum of 8.5 SU. This standard is designed to protect aquatic life from the harmful effects of water that is too acidic or too alkaline. While a pH above 8.5 is not lethal to aquatic life, it does not provide adequate protection; pH levels above 9.0 have been found to cause stress responses in rainbow trout, including sluggish movement, reduced feeding, and ammonia intoxication. High pH also indicates excessive algal growth in the river. The water quality certification for the Pelton Round Butte Complex mandates that discharges from the Project fall within this 6.5-8.5 range, to ensure that Project discharges comply with Oregon’s pH standard and that aquatic life in the lower river is adequately protected.

Since SWW operations began, Project discharges have routinely exceeded the 8.5 maximum standard. In 2016 alone, PGE’s own data show 140 days that pH levels rose above 8.5 at the Reregulating Dam tailrace.

While these numbers are alarming, downstream the problem appears to be even worse. In 2016, the DRA operated a data sonde one mile below the Reregulating Dam, collecting hourly readings for several water quality parameters, including pH, from February through November. Data collected at this site are summarized and analyzed in the DRA’s 2016 Lower Deschutes River Water Quality Report.

The pH data collected at this downstream sampling site are truly concerning. Of the 279 days sampled, 234 days had some pH measurements that exceeded the upper pH standard of 8.5. 120 of these days had pH measurements recorded above 9.0, and pH levels did not drop below 8.5 throughout April, May, and June. pH rose above 9.5 (remember, 10 times more alkaline than a pH of 8.5, and a hundred more times alkaline than a pH of 7.5) on two occasions: July 12 and October 14.

It makes sense that pH levels one mile downstream would be even higher than those in the Reregulating Dam tailrace. Increased algal growth in the river below the Project is increasing the amount of photosynthesis occurring in the river—this increased photosynthesis, in turn, continues to drive up pH levels downstream.

What do These Violations Mean, and Why are They Happening?

These newly elevated pH levels in the lower Deschutes River raise two important questions. First, what do these highly alkaline levels mean for the ecology of the lower river? As indicated above, in freshwater systems high pH levels are a strong indicator of excessive algal growth caused by nutrient enrichment. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen (or slipped on) the now-omnipresent nuisance algae blanketing the lower river’s rocks for much of the year. And such a high level of sustained pH poses definite stress and health risks to aquatic life including salmon, steelhead, and resident native trout.

Algae on rocks, one mile below the Pelton Reregulating Dam.

The next question that must be asked is: why is this happening? What is responsible for these elevated levels of pH? The only realistic answer appears to be the commencement of SWW operations.

Before SWW operations began in December 2009, discharges from the Pelton Round Butte Project did exceed Oregon’s pH standard from time to time. But these exceedances were relatively rare: PGE and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, in their 2001 application for the Project’s water quality certification, identified only one instance between 1994 and 1999 where pH below the Reregulating Dam exceeded 8.5. In 2007-2009, the three years immediately before SWW operations began, PGE’s water quality reports show far fewer violations of the 8.5 standard.

Further, Oregon DEQ data collected at the Warm Springs Bridge from 2005-2015 show an immediate and sustained increase in exceedances of the 8.5 standard upon commencement of SWW operations.

Clearly, surface water releases through the SWW tower have had a significant impact on pH levels in the lower Deschutes River. This surface water originates in the Crooked River, the warmest of the three tributaries that enter Lake Billy Chinook, and the tributary with the highest nutrient concentration. As a result, more surface water release means more nutrients are transferred to the lower Deschutes River. This in turn has triggered a significant increase in the growth of periphyton algae in the lower river, which has increased photosynthesis, and pH levels along with it.

The encouraging news about these harmful pH levels is that the solution is right in front of us. To lower pH to levels that are again safe for the river’s aquatic life, the Project operators can significantly increase the percentage of water drawn from the bottom of Lake Billy Chinook. Doing so would slow the Project’s nutrient transfer to the lower river; this would be beneficial not only for pH, but also for the health and diversity of the lower river’s aquatic insect populations and the fish and wildlife that depend on them.

The Pelton Round Butte Project’s current pH violations are at the root of our Clean Water Act lawsuit against Portland General Electric. We’ll be working diligently this year to ensure that these violations—and their resulting ecological impacts—are addressed.

Sources

Wagner, E.J., T. Bosakowski & S. Intelmann (1997). Combined Effects of Temperature and High pH on Mortality and the Stress Response of Rainbow Trout after Stocking. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society. 126:985-998.


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It’s the DRA’s Fourth Anniversary! Help Us Celebrate and Move Forward.

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Dear Deschutes River Alliance Supporter,

As a busy summer nears its end and we transition into fall, we would like to take a moment to reflect and to share our immense gratitude for your support and what it has helped us accomplish.

August has truly been a month for the books. In addition to our ongoing science work, we also celebrated a huge victory in our lawsuit against Portland General Electric. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit sided with DRA and refused to hear a PGE appeal that would have delayed this important lawsuit from moving forward. This decision also left in place a crucial ruling we secured this spring, affirming the rights of citizens to enforce water quality requirements at hydroelectric projects.

We are proud to say that this month also marks the four year anniversary of the official establishment of the Deschutes River Alliance as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Over the past four years, the DRA has worked tirelessly to restore cooler, cleaner water in the lower Deschutes River. Besides our important victories in the courtroom, the DRA Science Team has been diligently documenting the sources and extent of the ecological changes occurring in the lower river.

Of our many accomplishments in that time, here are a few we are particularly proud of:

  • A thermal imaging study of the lower Deschutes River and the area around the three dams of the Pelton-Round Butte Complex. This allowed us and others to have a better understanding of the temperature behavior of the river between the PRB Complex and the Columbia River.
  • Two years (and counting) of algae and water quality studies on Lake Billy Chinook and the lower Deschutes River. This work documents the changes in water quality that have occurred since selective water withdrawal operations began, including the water quality violations that are at the core of our lawsuit against PGE.
  • Three years (and counting) of our annual adult aquatic insect hatch survey. This survey was designed by DRA Board member and renowned aquatic entomologist Rick Hafele, to gather data on hatch timing and densities.
  • Over one year of benthic aquatic insect sampling in two locations in the lower river, to document trends in subsurface aquatic insect activity. This study, along with the hatch survey results, indicates an increase in worms and snails along the river’s bottom, and a decrease in adult aquatic insect populations in the air.
  • Funded a GIS mapping project of water quality in the lower Crooked River, to better understand the source of the pollution load entering Lake Billy Chinook.
This and more have been achieved over the last four years. None of this could have been achieved without the dedication of people like you. You are what keep us on the water and in the courtroom fighting to restore the river we all love.

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Our mission continues to drum in our ears. It beats stronger with each day. As the river grows quieter, our voices grow louder.

Take a moment to listen to board member and key science team leader, Rick Hafele, as he masterfully recounts the abundance of activity that once filled the Deschutes River.

“Song for the Deschutes”
-Rick Hafele



This is where we stand. As we enter our fifth year, we are proud to take with us many victories, but the final battle has not yet been won. After our critical legal victory this month, we are entering a new stage of our Clean Water Act lawsuit against Portland General Electric. Now more than ever, we need your help in our fight to protect and restore this spectacular river.

Many of you have a long history on the Deschutes. All of you have at least one story to tell of time spent by or in its waters. If you have been to the Deschutes this summer, you are likely walking away with a different tone to the story of your day. Maybe instead of catching steelhead, you hooked bass or walleye. Maybe you noticed the failure of caddis hatches to materialize in the evening.  Maybe you left without the sounds of songbirds or the cloud of insects trailing behind you.

Rest assured that this fight is not over. We can revive the once vibrant display of the Deschutes River that you’ve long known. Thank you for your support over the past four years, and cheers to Year Five: may it be the loudest ever.

 


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Lawsuit Update: DRA Secures Important Victory For Clean Water Advocates

Photo by Brian O’Keefe.

For months, the DRA has been working to defend citizens’ authority to enforce water quality requirements at hydroelectric projects. This past Monday, August 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit appeared to put this critical question to rest by siding with the DRA and refusing to hear a PGE appeal on the issue. This decision will allow DRA’s critical Clean Water Act lawsuit to proceed, and is an important victory for clean water advocates across the country.

A full recap of the lawsuit to this point can be found here. In short, PGE has sought to persuade the federal district and appellate courts to dismiss the DRA’s lawsuit, arguing that citizen groups like the DRA have no authority under the Clean Water Act to enforce water quality requirements at hydroelectric projects. This spring, Judge Michael Simon, of the District of Oregon federal court, roundly dismissed these arguments, affirming that the Clean Water Act “citizen suit” provision clearly authorizes lawsuits like the DRA’s. PGE then petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to hear an appeal of that ruling.

On August 14, after reviewing the parties’ briefing, a Ninth Circuit panel of judges denied PGE’s request for permission to appeal. This decision will leave Judge Simon’s important ruling undisturbed and allow DRA’s lawsuit to move forward.

Round Butte Dam and the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision has great significance for water quality in the lower Deschutes River, and for other rivers across the country that are severely impacted by hydroelectric projects. DRA has been working diligently for many months to protect citizens’ essential enforcement authority, and will continue to do so if necessary. And now, we are eager to present the merits of our case to Judge Simon.

DRA’s Clean Water Act lawsuit is a critical part of our efforts to restore clean, cold water and a healthy aquatic ecosystem to the lower Deschutes River. Keep an eye on the DRA blog for more updates as they develop in this important case.


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Black Spot Disease in the Lower Deschutes

For anyone who has fished the lower Deschutes River this year, it is not news that many of the fish being caught have Black Spot Disease (BSD). How many fish? We’ve received reports of as many as 100% of 30 fish caught over a three-day trip between Trout Creek and Harpham Flat. Most reports are that 60 to 80% of landed trout have obvious evidence of BSD.

Lower Deschutes River bull trout showing obvious Black Spot Disease. Photo courtesy of Nick Wheeler.

We, along with several of our supporters, have contacted representatives of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife about this issue, and have been told there is nothing to be alarmed about. One of our supporters received an email from ODFW that included the following:

“ODFW has done some research on the effects of blackspot [sic] on spring chinook [sic] smolts in the John Day River and found that the parasite had no adverse effects on condition or survival, even fish that were severely infected performed the same as uninfected fish. Our pathologists also have stated that blackspot [sic] is not categorized as a disease, meaning that it does not appear to effect the host. It is also important to note that blackspot [sic] is very cyclical, and most often comes and goes through time.”

We’ve not seen any research reports from ODFW regarding BSD, although it’s not unusual for these reports to not be advertised or be made readily available. What is unusual is that anglers who fish the bodies of water mentioned by ODFW do not report seeing BSD. This is not to say that BSD isn’t present on the John Day and other rivers, but it’s clearly not present right now to the same extent as in the lower Deschutes.

According to the statement from ODFW, BSD “is not categorized as a disease.” This is a curious claim. Why is it called Black Spot Disease? In all of the scientific literature that we searched, it is always referred to as a disease. This is because infection with BSD results in both systemic inflammation and tissue changes in fish. Inflammation is evidenced by increased cortisol (a hormone associated with stress and inflammation) levels. The skin and scale changes seen on fish with BSD are not caused by trauma. So we have a transmissible infective organism causing inflammation and tissue changes. That meets the definition of a disease.

The fish ODFW representatives have observed with BSD are noted to be in good condition. Yes they are, when they are caught. But no one is performing long-term observation to see what the consequences of chronic infection might be. We are now in the third year of BSD being observed in lower Deschutes River fish, so it’s obvious that more fish are being infected for longer periods of time. None of the studies on BSD to date look at longer-term infections, so those consequences are unknown.

What is known is that fish do die of BSD. According to reports, once fish are infected in the eyes or mouth, survival is limited. And fish with high parasite loads tend to be of lower weight.

The ventral surface of a redband trout with Black Spot disease, caught in the lower Deschutes River in late April 2017. Photo by Jamey Mitchell.

Black spot disease is caused by a flatworm (trematode) parasite known in the scientific community as Uvulifer ambloplitis, and also known as “neascus.” This parasite has a complicated life cycle that starts with eggs in water, which hatch and become juveniles known as miracidia, which in turn infect aquatic snails.  In snails this form of the parasite matures into the next life form, known as cercariae.  Cercariae are shed by the snails and become free swimmers, which attach to fish.  Once the cercariae have attached to the flesh of a fish, the fish develops an immune response that causes the dark spot.

Fish-eating birds are the next host, which become infected when they ingest infected fish.  The cercariae develop into adult flatworms, which means that fish-eating birds are internally infected with the parasite.  The parasite then produces eggs, which are shed in feces by fish-eating birds, and deposited in water where the life cycle is reinitiated.

This summer, many have observed decreases in fish-eating birds in the lowest forty miles of the Deschutes. Kingfishers are rarely seen now in that reach of river (they were previously seen in pairs occupying nearly every reach of river), and merganser populations in the lower forty miles have declined. Are these birds becoming infected with neascus and dying? Or is something else going on? Unfortunately, no one seems to be investigating this phenomenon.

Increases in BSD are associated with increased water temperature and increased aquatic snail populations—both conditions that Selective Water Withdrawal Tower operations have created in the lower Deschutes River. Further, research has demonstrated that rather than being “cyclic,” BSD is linked to sustained elevated water temperatures and algae growth.

The likely solution to reducing BSD is a return to cooler water temperatures and less nutrient loading in the lower Deschutes River. This would require that the SWW tower draw more water from the bottom of Lake Billy Chinook before discharging downstream.

Sources

Schaaf, Cody J, Suzanne J. Kelson, Sébastien C. Nussle, & Stephanie Carlson . Black spot infection in juvenile steelhead trout increases with stream temperature in northern California. Environmental Biology of Fish,; April, 2017.

McAllister, CT, R. Tumlison, H.W. Robison, and S.E. Trauth. An Initial Survey on Black-Spot Disease (Digenea: Strigeoidea: Diplostomidae) in Select Arkansas Fishes. Journal of the Arkansas Academy of Science, Vol. 67, 2013

Schaaf, Cody J. Environmental Factors in Trematode Parasite Dynamics: Water Temperature, Snail Density and Black Spot Disease Parasitism in California Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss). Submitted to University of California Berkley for Masters Thesis, May, 2015.


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Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Establishes No-Limit Bass Fishery on the Lower Deschutes River

On Friday, August 4, 2017, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to make the bass fishery in the lower Deschutes River a “no bag limit” fishery, beginning January 1, 2018.

A smallmouth bass caught last week on the lower Deschutes River.

This is a positive step toward dealing with the bass invasion of the past few years. It is also an acknowledgement that we have a problem in the lower Deschutes River. As we’ve noted in previous blogs, bass have been infrequently reported in the lower Deschutes River, in very small numbers, for many years. However, in the past two years the numbers of reported bass have grown significantly, with some anglers this year reporting catches of up to 20 bass per day below Macks Canyon.

These omnivorous and voracious predators feed on a mix of food types including juvenile fish (trout, steelhead, Chinook, shiners, etc.), crawdads, and aquatic insects. As their numbers increase, they pose an increasing threat to the ecology of the lower river.

Unlike in other fisheries where bass have been artificially introduced by well intended, but ill-advised, amateur biologists, the bass in the lower Deschutes River appear instead to have moved up from the Columbia River. This has happened because, remarkably, the lower Deschutes River is now warmer in the spring than the Columbia River. This is due to current selective water withdrawal operations at the tower above Round Butte Dam. During springtime, 100% surface water withdrawal is used to attract juvenile fish to the fish collection facility at Round Butte Dam. This surface water is many degrees warmer than water at the bottom of the reservoir, which was the source of water for dam operations prior to 2010.

The warmer water in the lower Deschutes River attracts bass and allows them to become more active earlier in the year. This gives them more time to feed before the next winter, and an earlier start on spawning.

DRA Board member Steve Pribyl with a smallmouth bass caught last summer.

Perhaps the saddest comment on the new bag limit is that most anglers are releasing the bass they catch in the lower Deschutes, in order to have something to catch in the future as this treasured river continues to change so rapidly. However, we would encourage all anglers to remove these fish from the water. Do not dispose of them on the bank, as that is a violation of rules regarding wasting of game fish.

The need for this change in fisheries management is another unanticipated and unintended consequence of SWW tower operations. And another sign that it’s time to reconsider how the tower is operated, along with current strategies for reintroducing fish above the Pelton-Round Butte Project.


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Walleye. In the Deschutes River?

The fish have spoken. And those fish are walleye. Remarkably, there are now walleye in the lower Deschutes River. As far as anyone is aware, this has never happened before. We wish this was good news. But it’s not.

We’ve been getting reports of walleye being hooked and landed as far upriver as Kloan, at River Mile 7. We’d not mentioned it yet as we were waiting for documentation of a landed walleye. Now we have it–the walleye in the photo below was landed at River Mile 4.5.

Photo provided by Deschutes River guide Brad Staples, pictured on the right.

In addition to walleye, smallmouth bass continue to be been taken in good numbers in the lower river this summer, for the second straight year. Trout and steelhead, not so much.

What does this mean for the lower river? As the lower river ecology and habitat changes due to Selective Water Withdrawal operations, so do the species that thrive in the new conditions. Warmer water attracts warm water fish. As insect populations decrease, piscivorous fish (fish that feed on other fish) increase.

Further, this is not good news for salmon and steelhead juvenile migration. Juvenile steelhead and salmon are preferred food items for walleye and often for bass, much as they are for northern pikeminnow. Bass and walleye are also capable of feeding on crawdads, worms and insects, and generally are known for being highly predatory feeding machines.

Looking into the mouth of the walleye. Photo from American Expedition.

We are repeatedly told by the agencies responsible for Deschutes River management that nothing has changed in the lower Deschutes River since the implementation of surface water withdrawal at Round Butte Dam. But lets consider the list of easily observable changes:

  • Bass and walleye incursion
  • Increased water temperatures throughout the lower river’s 100 miles, from mid-winter through spring and summer
  • Black Spot Disease widely spread in trout, steelhead, and bull trout
  • Invasive nuisance algae
  • Significant change in insect community structure, and decline in adult insect abundance
  • Observations of declining bird populations

Clearly, this is no longer the river we knew prior to 2010. But fortunately, we know these problems are not inevitable. A return to cooler, cleaner water discharged from the Pelton Round Butte Project can begin alleviating these discouraging ecological changes in the lower river. It’s time for the responsible agencies, dam operators, and other parties to admit that the Selective Water Withdrawal tower is responsible for some serious unintended consequences, and begin charting a new path forward for lower river management.

The Deschutes River Alliance will remain on the front lines of the battle to restore this treasured river. Please join us in our efforts.


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