Announcing the DRA’s 2016 Lower Deschutes River Water Quality Report

We are thrilled to announce the publication of the DRA’s 2016 Lower Deschutes River Water Quality Report. This report—along with three other reports we’ll be releasing over the next two months—is the culmination of the DRA’s most detailed investigation yet of the causes and extent of the ecological changes occurring in the lower Deschutes River.

An important aspect of the report analyzes hourly water quality data collected at River Mile 99, one mile below the Pelton Reregulating Dam, from February 18 through November 22, 2016. All data collected for pH, temperature, and dissolved oxygen are presented and analyzed, and compared against water quality requirements contained in the state-issued Clean Water Act § 401 Certification for the Pelton-Round Butte Complex, as well as Oregon’s water quality standards for the Deschutes Basin. Read the whole thing here.

This report represents the most complete public analysis yet of the impact of Selective Water Withdrawal operations on water quality below the Pelton-Round Butte Hydroelectric Complex. Key findings include:

  • Oregon’s water quality standard for pH in the Deschutes Basin (6.5-8.5 SU) was exceeded on 234 out of 279 days that data were collected (84%). 43% of the days sampled had pH measurements greater than 9.0.
  • Each year since 2011, Project operators have worked with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to purportedly weaken the water quality requirements in the Project’s Clean Water Act § 401 Certification. These changes include:
    • The defined spawning season for salmonids was changed from year-round to Oct. 15-June 15. This change allows the application of a lower dissolved oxygen standard during the non-spawning period (June 16-Oct. 14). However, this newly defined spawning period does not take into account the full season of resident trout spawning and egg incubation, as is required by the Oregon Administrative Rules. This has caused dissolved oxygen levels in the lower Deschutes River to fall below levels required to protect resident salmonids through egg incubation and fry emergence.
    • The water temperature that triggers the blending of cool bottom water from Lake Billy Chinook with warmer surface water has been markedly increased since the Selective Water Withdrawal tower began operations. This has allowed the release of 100% surface water into the lower Deschutes River to continue later into the summer.
  • Changes in pH and dissolved oxygen, documented by this study and ODEQ’s own data, clearly indicate that excess nutrients are being released into the lower Deschutes River from the surface waters of Lake Billy Chinook.

DRA’s 2016 Lower Deschutes River Water Quality Report clearly establishes that, in just seven years of operation, the Selective Water Withdrawal tower at Pelton-Round Butte has severely degraded water quality and threatens aquatic life below the Project. We believe this report will serve as an important document for all basin stakeholders in assessing the impact of tower operations on the river we all love.

A special thanks to all of our supporters, whose generosity and passion for the river has made all of our science work possible. We’d like to take this opportunity to specifically thank the various organizations and foundations who have provided funding to support this critical work, including:

  • The Oregon Wildlife Heritage Fund
  • Maybelle Clark MacDonald Fund
  • Flyfishers Club of Oregon/Flyfishers Foundation
  • Clark-Skamania Flyfishers
  • Mazamas
  • American Fly Fishing Trade Association
  • Tualatin Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited
  • Washington County Fly Fishers

Cooler, cleaner H2O for the Deschutes!

Photo by Brian O’Keefe



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2016 Stonefly Hatch: A Recap

Photo by Rick Hafele.

Photo by Rick Hafele.

It’s come and gone. No one is even talking about it any longer. Why? Well, it wasn’t exactly epic. Or was it?

Here’s the lowdown on the 2016 stonefly hatch based on personal observation; reports from friends, guides and outfitters; emails; and reports to our hatch observer database. This collectively represents hundreds of fishing days, if not over a thousand. None of this will be a surprise to those who were there for it. And many were there! The annual stonefly hatch remains the single largest trout fishing frenzy on the lower Deschutes River.

The first salmonflies were seen mid-April once again this year. Golden stones were seen not long after. Both were first spotted down below Sherars Falls. The big bugs appeared very sporadically until early May. Then numbers began to pick up and the hatch spread further upstream to well above the locked gate at the upper end of the access road above Maupin.   There were a few scattered reports of good numbers of stoneflies during that time. If you were fortunate enough to be on the river those days, the fishing was off the hook.

Then harsh weather set in. It got colder and there were heavy rains and the hatch all but disappeared but for a few hardy bugs clinging to grass and alder leaves.

Days later, the bad weather turned back to good weather and the hatch started back up, progressing up to the Kaskela area. Once more, if you were on top of the hatch in the right location, fishing was excellent. Then once again the weather turned wet and cold for days on end. The bugs again became hard to find. The quality of the fishing suffered. The last guide report of large numbers of salmonflies or golden stones seen on the river was May 17th. Only low to moderate numbers were seen after that until the final observed golden stones were reported on June 5th.

Photo by Brian O'Keefe

Photo by Brian O’Keefe

When weather conditions in the canyon were wet and cold, it was hard to find a stonefly anywhere. The trees and grass were bare. The big bugs were hiding from the conditions. If they aren’t out crawling all over the place, they aren’t finding mates. If they aren’t finding mates, no mating takes place.

This pattern repeated itself three times. Finally a meager representation of the hatches of earlier years hung on for about a week and half, reaching all the way up to Dizney Riffle. Then it fizzled out all together.

Mixed in with the stoneflies in mid-May was about a week and half period where everything was hatching. Green drakes, pale morning duns, pale evening duns, Beatis, caddis, it was all happening at once. There were even a few Antocha crane flies seen! But all of that ended as quickly as it began. And the total numbers weren’t all that exciting. It was perplexing to see June and July hatches in mid-May.

We are still getting some reports of good numbers of caddis in the tops of alders at last light on calm evenings. But the mayfly hatches of early to mid-summer are now totally missing in action.

What meaning does all of this have for the lower Deschutes River and the future of aquatic insect species? If this year had been a one time, one-off affair, it would probably mean little, being what biologists call annual variability. But it’s become a common way for spring to unfold on the lower river.

Most disconcerting is the role this might be playing in stonefly reproduction. Salmonflies emerge after three to four years as nymphs, golden stones after two to three years as nymphs.   Any impact of this year’s weather on mating won’t be seen until 2018 to 2020. The problem is this: with warmer winter and early spring river temperatures as a consequence of surface water withdrawal at Round Butte Dam, stoneflies emerge sooner and into the often harsh conditions of early spring, not late spring/early summer as they used to. The consequence is that reliably they are now challenged to find mates and get their reproduction needs accomplished.

Anyone who has spent years on the lower Deschutes River knows that stonefly numbers are down. Way down. According to Portland General Electric’s Lower Deschutes River Macroinvertebrate and Periphyton Study (page 97), “Stoneflies were not numerically abundant, but were widely distributed and contributed substantially to the invertebrate biomass by virtue of the often large size.”  That was some nice positive spin in the end of that quote, but the reality is that stoneflies are no longer “numerically abundant.” Unlike with many of the mayfly species and Antocha crane flies, this is probably not linked to the nuisance algae growth in the lower river.

Salmonflies as nymphs are detritivores, meaning they scavenge broadly across a river bottom eating dead material, mostly from plants. Golden stoneflies are roving predators and tend to feed on slow moving macroinvertebrates like midge larvae and worms. So the documented increase in worm populations in the lower river should be benefiting them. Nuisance algae are less likely to affect stoneflies as they spend time crawling between or under rocks, avoiding the algae covered top and side surfaces.

That means the declining numbers are most likely due to something else. Most likely that “something else” is hatching early into weather conditions not conducive to mating activity for much of the short adult phase of their relatively long lives. If reproductive success declines, the population declines.

June was a much warmer, drier month than May this year (like most years) on the lower Deschutes River. We’re guessing the stoneflies would have preferred those conditions.

Photo by Brian O'Keefe.

Photo by Brian O’Keefe.

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DRA Releases Reports

On March 4, we posted two new reports under the “Reports” tab on our website.

The first report is the analysis of our 2014 thermal imaging survey of the lower Deschutes River.

Slide1

This report is the analysis of the first known thermal imaging look at mid-summer temperature behavior in the lower river.  There were many unanticipated surprises from the imaging, but two findings are of greatest importance.

  • The thermal behavior of water discharged from the Pelton-Round Butte Complex during nighttime hours is unaffected by “canyon effect.” Canyon effect warms the water during the day as a product of solar radiation exposure.  Nighttime discharge, however, avoids much of the daytime warming effect.   Yet all temperature calculations used for temperature management by dam operations act as if water temperature and temperature behavior are the same day and night.  It has also been stated by the dam operators that “cooler temperature discharge from the dams wouldn’t make any difference” because of “canyon effect.”  Our findings contradict that.
  • Solar radiation (down-bound long wave radiation) is far more important than air temperature in determining river temperatures. Solar radiation warms both air and the water in the river.  That means that shade from canyon walls and riparian vegetation is important in maintaining cooler water in the river.  Air temperature in Redmond is also an important factor in determining the goal for temperature management for dam discharge, yet air temperature has little effect on water temperature.

The second report describes our data and findings from the 2015 water quality study we did in Lake Billy Chinook and in the lower river just below the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex. 

Slide2

The Selective Water Withdrawal Tower at Round Butte Dam (the uppermost dam of the three dam complex at Pelton-Round Butte) has intake portals in the top 30 feet of the reservoir, and at 265 feet of depth.  To better understand the water quality effects of Tower operations and selective water withdrawal, we sampled surface water and water at depth in front of the Tower, as well as in the river below the dams.

The data we gathered demonstrated many things, and also raised more questions that we will be attempting to answer through the water quality sampling we started in February of this year. Our results from 2015 shed light on a number of critical factors, including that:

  • Surface water withdrawn from Lake Billy Chinook, for much of the year, consists primarily of water from the Crooked River Arm of the reservoir.
  • Water from the Crooked River Arm is warmer, and of poor water quality (the Crooked River water quality above the reservoir is rated as “poor” by Oregon Department of Environmental Quality). Plus, the water in the Crooked River Arm supports the densest level of algae growth in the reservoir.  In contrast, water from the Metolius River, which, because of its colder temperature constitutes most of the water at the depth of 265’, is of high quality (based on ODEQ data, as well as our own data).

Questions we are hoping to answer in 2016 include (but are not limited to):

  • What is the “nutrient load” entering Lake Billy Chinook from the three tributaries, and when does it get discharged from the dam complex into the lower Deschutes River? Algae in the upper water of the reservoir actually help decrease nutrient levels during summertime growth, but nutrients in surface water discharged in late fall, early winter and spring are not likely attenuated by that algae, and probably contributes significantly to the growth of nuisance algae that has been documented in the lower river.  So we are now tracking nutrient levels at the surface and at depth in the reservoir and below the dams.
  • Is the surface water in the Crooked River Arm of Lake Billy Chinook too toxic for migratory juvenile fish survival during major algae blooms due to high pH, high temperature and/or other variables?
  • Is operation of the dam complex in compliance with the water quality requirements of the Pelton-Round Butte Section 401 Certification under the Clean Water Act and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license?

We would also like to announce that we are (finally!) getting some of our raw water quality data posted on our website.  We are open-sourcing the data for all to view or use.  It will take some time to get everything posted, but we will be working on this going forward.

We hope to post updates on our work throughout the year.  So please stay tuned.

Deep and heartfelt thanks to our donors and supporters for making this work possible!

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

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