Water Quality and Aquatic Insects: A Story of Change in the lower Deschutes River

Do you ever think about the diversity and abundance of life that lives within the rocks and banks of a river? Aquatic entomologists study the organisms that inhabit the substrate, or benthic zone, in lakes and streams. The lower Deschutes River is historically well known for its abundant and diverse insect population that provide food for trout, birds, and other animals. Recent changes in the benthic zone’s appearance, including prolific algae growth, prompted concern for the aquatic insects that require clean and suitable substrate to thrive.

October caddisfly (Dicosmoecus sp.) lava. Photo by Rick Hafele.


In 2015 and 2016 the Deschutes River Alliance Science Team, with guidance from our trained aquatic entomologist Rick Hafele, collected benthic samples for analysis. We used methods developed by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to collect and assess the macroinvertebrates at two sites in the lower Deschutes River. The 2015/2016 Lower Deschutes River Benthic Study (DRA 2019) can be found on our website: www.deschutesriveralliance.org.

Our study results are consistent with responses to eutrophic conditions (meaning excess nutrients). In this case the problem is from high loads of nutrients, primarily nitrogen from agricultural sources, and the result is poor water quality. First, our results showed low abundance of pollution sensitive species of caddisflies, mayflies, and stoneflies relative to the abundance of pollution tolerant species like worms and snails. In fact, the abundance of non-insect pollution tolerant species comprised more than 50% of all invertebrates collected from all samples during the study. The results from September 2016 are summarized below.

Deschutes River Alliance benthic sampling results for September 2016. Non-insect taxa (primarily worms and snails), EPT (mayfly, stonefly, and caddisfly taxa), and other (beetles, moths, flies) are expressed as percent relative abundance. Dizney Riffle and Kaskela are at River Mile 99 and 79, respectively, of the lower Deschutes River.

In addition, a polychaete worm was observed in high abundance.  This worm is the intermediate host of the Ceratonova (syn: Ceratomyxashasta parasite and ranged from 252 to over 8,000 individuals per square meter during the study. C. shasta is particularly concerning for the health of spring Chinook salmon in the Deschutes River. The figure below summarizes the complex life cycle of C. shasta.


Ceratonova (syn: Ceratomyxa) shasta life cycle. Source: OSU Microbiology department (https://microbiology.science.oregonstate.edu/deschutes-river)

Concurrent studies in 2015 and 2016 by Oregon State University, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service detected high concentrations of the C. shasta spores in water samples collected in the lower Deschutes River (see “ODFW Fellowship Report 2015-2016”). Enteronecrosis (aka “gut rot”) is caused by infection of the C. shasta parasite and has caused losses of adult and juvenile Chinook salmon in the Deschutes Basin. The overall effect of this disease on the spring Chinook salmon population is currently unknown but warrants further investigation.

Low numbers of pollution-sensitive insects coupled with high abundance of parasite-hosting non-insect species continue to raise questions about water quality in the lower Deschutes River. Multiple lines of evidence now point toward the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower as the reason for the shift to eutrophic conditions in the lower Deschutes River. The Deschutes River Alliance continues to advocate for the return of cold and clean water to the lower Deschutes River in addition to monitoring the impacts of these changes.

A Successful BBQ in Maupin!

A delicious spread of burgers, hot dogs, and more sourced from the great folks at the Maupin Market.

Both the conversations and the music were lively at DRA’s first annual Maupin BBQ at Kaiser Park in Maupin last Saturday, coinciding with National Public Lands Day and the BLM’s volunteer cleanup event. Turnout and determination were high as people came together to celebrate the Wild & Scenic lower Deschutes River and renew their commitment to improve water quality of the river. 

“It isn’t too late to save the lower Deschutes River, if only all concerned will follow the science, at long last,” said Greg McMillan, president of the DRA. “There is a clear path ahead to improve the health of this waterway that provides drinking water, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreational and economic opportunities for our state.” 

The DRA didn’t let a little wind and rain stop us from throwing an awesome party. Despite the weather conditions, the BBQ carried on and the people who joined us had a great time.

The Slippery Rock String Band (with guest harmonica player Rick Hafele!) keeping the party going.

The river celebration was promoted by the Madras Pioneer, Hood River News, The Dalles Chronicle and KBND radio. And it wouldn’t have happened without the support of amazing community members. Food – including some amazing hot dogs – was coordinated by the Maupin Market. The crew at the Deschutes Angler helped run the grill. Freebridge Brewing provided beer and the Slippery Rock String Band kept toes tapping and people dancing. 

Maupin mayor Lynn Ewing, a long-time supporter of DRA’s efforts was in attendance as well as Wasco County Commissioner Kathy Schwartz.

(From left) Maupin Mayor, Lynn Ewing; DRA President, Greg McMillan; and DRA Board Member, Rick Hafele

Before the party, about 20 folks, including several DRA supporters, joined in the river cleanup along the lower Deschutes, picking up litter and detritus. 

(From left) Allison Bechtol, DRA Executive Director Sarah Cloud, and Jacky Pribyl

This was the first DRA event for new executive director Sarah Cloud. 

“I continue to be impressed and encouraged by the amazing community support for DRA and our work for science-based solutions to improve the water quality of the Wild & Scenic lower Deschutes River,” said Cloud. “This was a great event and I’m looking forward to next year when the party will be even larger.”

A family enjoys food and friends in Kaiser Park


Register Today for the DRA 2020 Gathering and Auction!


Join us for the biggest DRA party of the year! Mark your calendars and register today for the DRA 2020 Gathering and Auction! You won’t want to miss out on the afternoon celebration!


Saturday, February 8, 2020

1pm – 5pm

Montgomery Park, Portland, OR

Admission: $100 per person


Click here to register!


We will once again have delicious wine provided by Lange Estate Winery, and incredible beer crafted by Freebridge Brewing Co. Visit with new and old friends alike while enjoying a hearty assortment of appetizers from Elephants Catering – an afternoon meal in itself!


PLUS! Back by popular demand – Portland’s own Bridge City Blues Band will be rocking the house! You’ll have the change to book them for your next event, too, as we kick off the auction.


This year’s auction lineup will be jam packed with exciting trips, one-of-a-kind rods and reels, outdoor adventures and gear, regional wines and brewery experiences, and so much more! There’s guaranteed something for everyone in our thoughtfully curated live and silent auctions, and a stellar raffle to boot!


Last year’s even sold out – secure your seat at the table and register today!


Thank you to our 2020 sponsors!



DRA Releases 2018 Lower Deschutes River Water Quality Report

The Deschutes River Alliance accomplished a lot of important work for the lower Deschutes River in 2018:

None of this work would have been possible without the generous support and dedication to the lower Deschutes River of our donors.

Photo by Wesley Noone.


In addition, we are pleased to announce the release of the DRA’s 2018 Lower Deschutes River Water Quality Report. The report is a comprehensive analysis of data collected from our water quality monitoring work conducted in 2018. This monitoring continues to be an important element in our science efforts and provides invaluable insight into changes occurring on the lower Deschutes River.

What did we find? Once again, our data (in combination with our data we’ll be publishing soon on Lake Billy Chinook) finds the following:

  • Water quality in the surface water in the forebay of Lake Billy Chinook is composed of water matching Crooked River water. This seasonally warm, algae laden and nutrient polluted water forms the surface water that is drawn into the Selective Water Withdrawal (SWW) Tower and, for much of the year, is being discharged undiluted into the lower Deschutes River. Prior to surface water withdrawal, reservoir algae absorbed and utilized the excess nutrients entering the reservoir from the Crooked River.  Then later in the year, the reservoir would mix, or “turn over.”  Back then, cool, clean water was discharged from the bottom of the forebay at Round Butte Dam. Now with surface water draw at the tower, the residency time of surface water is reduced, resulting in nitrogenous nutrients being transferred to the lower Deschutes River.
  • The consequence of this surface water withdrawal is a yearly seasonal pattern of exceeding or not meeting the water quality requirements of the Water Quality Management and Monitoring Plan of the Clean Water Act Section 401 Certification of the Pelton-Round Butte Hydroelectric Complex. The exceedances are primarily for pH and temperature.
  • Dissolved oxygen is not being managed for redband trout during much of their spawning period in the lower Deschutes River.
  • Oregon Department of Environmental Quality pH data collected at the Hwy. 26 bridge on the lower Deschutes River continues to record significantly higher pH (a marker of increased nutrient pollution and algae growth) since the SSW Tower went into operation.
  • In 2018, a reduction in observed turbidity, and increased adult aquatic insect hatch activity during the month of May coincided with reduced Upper Crooked River flows.The upper Crooked River went dry just above the reservoir in mid-May of 2018.


These findings are detailed and substantiated in our annual water quality report.

Absent effective action by state and federal authorities, DRA will continue to seek to enforce Clean Water Act water quality standards as a principle means of restoring the ecological integrity of the Lower Deschutes River.

Going forward, we are also implementing a water quality monitoring program for the Crooked River.

We are eager to get our Lake Billy Chinook data published later this summer.  Watch for it in mid-July to early August 2019.

We want to give our most heartfelt thanks to our supporters for making it possible to do this work in monitoring and defending the lower Deschutes River.


Whirling Disease Not Likely in Lower Deschutes River

We received the photo below via social media a few weeks ago and we were asked if the fish in the photo was affected by “whirling disease” or Myxobolus cerebralis.



No diagnosis of whirling disease can be possible without a proper examination by someone knowledgeable in fish pathology despite the appearance of the fish.  There are other causes of the spinal and other malformations that are more likely in the lower Deschutes River trout population.

First amongst those is trauma from electroshocking.  Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) has been conducting electroshocking studies in the lower Deschutes River for several years.  Trauma such as seen in the photo above, although rare, is not unusual.

This fish could also have been the victim of osprey predation as a juvenile, but managed to escape.

Myxobolus cerebralishas a relatively complicated three-stage, two-host, life cycle.  Part of that life cycle requires a tubificid oligochaete(Tubifex tubifex).  Although the lower Deschutes River has seen a large increase in oligochaetes since the implementation of surface water draw from Lake Billy Chinook, this specific oligochaete has not been identified in either of two sampling studies of benthic fauna.

There have also been no other reports of similarly afflicted fish in the lower Deschutes River.  Whirling disease tends to occur in epidemics.

At one time in the 1990s and early 2000s, there were suspicions that whirling disease might be present in the Upper Deschutes River watershed, although no publications that we are aware of substantiate that.  Whirling disease is an ongoing concern and is monitored for in hatcheries.

If you find fish with an appearance similar to that in the photo above, please photograph the fish, and if possible, get it to a local ODFW office (on ice of course!).

Everyone can help prevent the spread of whirling disease (and other invasive species like New Zealand mud snails) here and elsewhere by following guidelines for cleaning waders and wading boots.  Here is information on how to clean your gear:


Helping Neighbors in Need

The residents of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation have had major problems with their domestic water supply recently.  The problems are so bad that there has been no water delivery to homes or other buildings via the municipal piped water system for weeks now.

The problems include breaks in the water main, and prior to that, boil water notices due to inadequate filtration of the domestic water which is drawn directly from the Deschutes River.

A date for completion of the water main repairs still remains in the future.  Until the water main repairs are complete, residents must use bottled water at home.  Showers have been provided using the mobile showers firefighting camps use.

On Tuesday, June 18, the Deschutes River Alliance delivered 100-gallon jugs of commercial purified spring water to the water crisis command and distribution center in Warm Springs.  This was a veritable drop in the bucket compared to the overall need. But we’ll return again next week with another delivery. We’ve been told that Warm Springs is going through about 600-gallons a day of bottled water.

Wes Noone after loading 100 gallon jugs of water in the back of a pickup for delivery to Warm Springs.


The entire population that lives south of Highway 26 is presently without water.

Our offering of 100-gallons of water was very warmly received.  We’d like to suggest that others make similar donations. Gallon jugs are requested to limit the amount of plastic that will need to be recycled after the crisis is over.


Volunteers unloading our donation at the Warm Springs emergency water distribution center.


Sarah Cloud Named New Executive Director of the DRA

Please join us in welcoming our new Executive Director to the Deschutes River Alliance!  

As you know, Jonah Sandford recently left us to join the Northwest Environmental Defense Center.  We are excited for both his future endeavors and ours as we enter this transition.

Sarah comes to us with over twenty years of non-profit and political campaign management experience and a desire to protect the environment.  Most recently she has worked for non-profits focused on gender equity in the tech industry and housing issues. In addition, she has worked with the Citizens’ Utility Board of Oregon and various political campaigns.

“I have always been drawn to work that fights for the underdog. Unfortunately, the environment is an underdog in our current climate. I look forward to working with a team dedicated to protecting and preserving the Deschutes River as the treasure it is.” Sarah shares.

She has a diverse skill set that includes fundraising, conflict resolution, utilization of mainstream and social media, and data management.

Although not a fly angler (yet), Sarah sees and understands the importance of clean water and citizen enforcement of clean water laws. Some of her fondest childhood memories are of fishing with her dad on Lakes Michigan and Hamilton in the Luddington, Michigan area. These days you will often find her exploring many of the flat waters of the region via her kayak.

You’ll be hearing more about, and from, Sarah in the coming months.  Please join us in giving her a warm welcome.