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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Remembering Cam Groner: 1949-2017

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of former DRA board member and Vice President Cam Groner on July 17, 2017. Cam died quietly and peacefully at the end of a many months-long battle with Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease.

Cam is deeply missed by those close to him. He was incredibly bright, sometimes irascible, strong-willed (some might even say stubborn), and nearly always right. A subversive sense of humor kept Cam from allowing any situation to become too serious. Cam could readily quote from memory Shakespeare, the law, Firesign Theater, song lyrics, and nearly anything else that he had been exposed to at some point in his life. This made him an entertaining delight to spend time with.

Cam was the consummate fly-angler. The real deal. The kind of fisherman whose life was centered around and focused on his passion for fishing. The man could fish. He took huge pleasure in every aspect of it. He was a pleasure to fish with because his joy in fishing was so intense and so contagious.

Cam especially loved fishing for steelhead. Later in life, he traveled to the Dean River in British Columbia as often as he could. He loved the wildness of the place, and the run of huge steelhead there.

Cam on the Dean River

But most of all Cam loved the lower Deschutes River. So much so that he and his partner, Ingrid Brydolf, built a second home in Maupin. It was from there that Cam could fish and entertain friends.

Cam didn’t fish much with guides, but when he did he loved to fish the waters of the Deschutes River along the Warm Springs Reservation with his friends Al Bagley and Matt Mendes. Here’s a video where Cam produces an opera, the Hardy Reel Opera, with Matt in the background. Cam loved to hear that reel sing.

Cam did his undergraduate studies at Yale, acquired a master’s degree from Harvard, and went on to graduate from Northwestern School of Law at Lewis and Clark College. Cam retired as the Chief Legal Officer for Legacy Health. His retirement career was as the first director of the DRA legal team and Vice President of the DRA Board of Directors. Cam was also a member of the DRA Founding Circle.

The rivers and fish that Cam loved benefited greatly from his advocacy and extensive legal background. In his time with the DRA, Cam worked diligently driving processes to find resolutions to the problems facing the lower Deschutes River.

Cam will be missed most of all by his children Christine, Lauren and Geoff, his life partner Ingrid Brydolf, and his best friend and fishing partner Dave Baca. Our heartfelt condolences go to them, and to everyone else who knew and loved Cam.

Memorial contributions can be made to the Cam Groner Memorial Fund at the Deschutes River Alliance. Please note on your contribution that it is for the Cam Groner Memorial Fund. All proceeds donated in Cam’s memory will go towards the DRA’s legal expenses.

http://www.deschutesriveralliance.org/supporting-the-dra/

Contributions can also be made to the Legacy Health Foundation’s Cam Groner Charity Care Fund.

You may also honor Cam by going fishing, and at the end of the day toasting a glass of good Oregon pinot noir to his life and his memory.


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A Special Thanks to the Flyfisher’s Club of Oregon and the Flyfisher Foundation

We’d like to take this opportunity to extend our gratitude to an organization that has provided incredible support for the DRA’s work over the last few years. This spring, for the second time, the DRA was selected by the Flyfisher Foundation to be the recipient of funds raised during the Keith Hansen Memorial Paddle Raise, which took place in May at The Flyfisher’s Club of Oregon’s annual auction. This fantastic event raised over $23,000 for the DRA’s 2017 science and advocacy efforts, bringing the total amount awarded by FFF to the DRA to nearly $50,000 over the last three years.

We have been truly honored to partner with FCO and FFF as we work to protect and restore the lower Deschutes River. These organizations were founded to promote and preserve the art, science and history of the sport of fly fishing. To that end, they have provided funds annually to organizations undertaking important work to protect and restore rivers that provide invaluable fly fishing opportunities for generations to come. Previous grantees have included Western Rivers Conservancy, Pacific Rivers Council, and the Native Fish Society. It has been a privilege for all of us at the DRA to be part of this lengthy tradition of working with FFF to protect treasured western rivers.

The generous assistance of the Flyfisher’s Club and the Flyfisher Foundation will be critical to all of the DRA’s efforts in the coming year. We’ll continue to put these funds directly to work to restore cooler, cleaner water to the lower Deschutes River.

Again, many thanks!


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Check out the DRA’s New Website, and Meet our New Staff Member!

It’s been a busy couple of weeks around the DRA office. In addition to our ongoing science and advocacy efforts, we have two exciting developments to share:

First, we’re thrilled to announce the launch of the DRA’s new website! There, you’ll find easy access to:

…and much, much more. So take a look through the new site, and if you have a moment, we’d love know what you think.

Next, we’re excited to introduce the DRA’s newest staff member, Krista Isaksen! Krista recently moved to Oregon from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she worked in marketing and program support in both the nonprofit and for-profit sector.

Krista Isaksen, the DRA’s new Development and Administrative Associate

We couldn’t be happier to have her on the team as the DRA’s new Development and Administrative Associate. You’ll be hearing from Krista regularly over the coming months, but in the meantime, join us in welcoming her to the DRA community!

The summer is off to a great start for the DRA. Keep an eye on the blog for more updates in the coming weeks!


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

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