A Second Type of Algae Plagues the Lower Deschutes

By Greg McMillan and the Board of Directors of the Deschutes River Alliance, to especially include Cam Groner and Rick Hafele

In the words of DRA board member John Hazel, “It’s been a rugged summer.”  He’s right.  Drought, fire, smoke, warm water temperatures, fish die-offs, and fishing closures have all plagued the lower Deschutes River this year.  Now we have a new problem.  As if the lower Deschutes hasn’t had enough problems already.

Starting two weeks ago we started receiving emails and phone calls about a free-floating, green filamentous algae being present in the river.  It was draping itself in clumps over flies, knots in fishing lines, lures, side-planers and anchor lines on boats.  Shortly after that we started hearing from individuals with pumps in the river for domestic and irrigation withdrawals.  The algae was clogging the screens on their pumps.  Next we heard that the water pump at the fish counting station at Sherars Falls was suffering from the same problem with clogged screens.   The impact to irrigation pumps has resulted in screens having to be cleaned several times a day.  This puts very expensive pumps at risk of serious damage.

The potential economic consequences of this are hard to estimate, but it does have an impact.  Anglers are already avoiding the lower Deschutes due to warm water, a slippery river bottom, lack of aquatic insect hatches and turbidity from White River.  This impacts guides, outfitters and other businesses dependent upon the angling economy.

For those with pumps in the river, the cost of a damaged pump, labor to clean screens, or an outright inability to irrigate would be damaging to their incomes.  These incomes pay the tax dollars that support Wasco County and the Maupin School District.

The Algae

These stringy looking dark green algae have been presumptively identified as Cladophora, with possibly some Anabaena mixed in.  Cladophora has been observed in the lower Deschutes River for a long time.  But never in quantities like are being observed now.

The peak time for growth of Cladophora is typically late spring and early summer, although it can undergo a growth spurt in fall as decomposing organic matter provides nutrients to stimulate its biological activity.

Cladophora is widespread globally.  Cladophora blooms in the Great Lakes are legendarily bad and have created major environmental problems including fish die-offs.  This happens when the Cladophora dies and starts to decay, using up oxygen in the water and creating low oxygen conditions for fish and other aquatic organisms.  We are not likely to see fish die-offs due to Cladophora in the lower Deschutes as long as the flowing water in the river helps keep oxygen at adequate levels.

The growth of Cladophora has probably reached its peak in the lower Deschutes River, as well as its maximum life expectancy.  It is now detaching from the substrate in the river and floating off in the current for the last of its short life.

Cladophora sample collected from the lower Deschutes River on August, 16, 2015. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Cladophora sample collected from the lower Deschutes River on August, 16, 2015. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Why So Much Cladophora Now?

Cladophora blooms like we are seeing in the lower Deschutes River are invariably the consequence of an increased nutrient load in the river.  The nutrients are nitrogen and phosphorous.  Warm water helps fuel the growth of Cladophora.

This summer has been very warm, even downright hot at times.  Temperature management at the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex has used large amounts of surface water to increase dam discharge water temperatures in accordance with the Without Project Temperature (WPT, and previously called Natural Thermal Potential) model utilized by the dam owner/operators (Portland General Electric and The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation). In a recent blog post we described how this model works and how it results in the harmful warming of the lower river during times of warmer air temperatures.

During our fieldwork in Lake Billy Chinook this year, we’ve been seeking to determine how dam operations have altered the nutrient load in the lower Deschutes.  We’ve found that of the three tributaries, the Crooked River has the highest nutrient load, while the Metolius River has the lowest.  The Metolius, in our sampling, has had no detectable nitrogen based nutrients.

The Metolius River enters the reservoir and then flows into the forebay of the dam at depths approaching 350 feet.  The Crooked River enters the forebay at about 120 feet of depth (the Middle Deschutes enters the Crooked River Arm about ½ mile south of the forebay).  The result is that the combined Crooked and Middle Deschutes River water sits on top of the Metolius River water during warm months.  Once the lake cools in mid- to late fall, the lake begins to “turn over” or mix.

The consequence of this is that the surface water in the forebay consists primarily of Crooked River water.  To see how the nutrient load in the Crooked River water fuels algae growth, take a look at the surface water in the Crooked River Arm of the reservoir in this unaltered photo:

Photo by Greg McMillan.

Photo by Greg McMillan.

Here is what the surface water looks like in the forebay of Round Butte Dam during summer:

Photo by Greg McMillan.

Photo by Greg McMillan.

By mid-summer the algae in the reservoir have used much of the nutrients for their own growth, but through spring and early summer that nutrient laden water is discharged into the lower river.   The result is more rapid algal growth.  And not just with Cladophora, but also with the stalked diatoms we’ve been documenting in the lower river that have contributed to the decline of aquatic insects.

Prior to the completion of the Surface Water Withdrawal Tower at Round Butte Dam in 2009, Metolius River water made up the bulk of the water drawn from the reservoir for power production.  We didn’t have these problems in the lower river prior to operation of the SWW Tower.

We are certain that these consequences of surface water withdrawal were not intended in the design and implementation of the Selective Water Withdrawal program that attempted to provide currents in the reservoir for juvenile fish migration.

The Solution

It has been demonstrated in cases of other Cladophora blooms that controlling nutrient load reduces or eliminates the problem.  That can be done in this case.  And should be done by reducing the amount of warm, nutrient-laden surface water being discharged into the lower Deschutes.  Nuisance algae problems have been increasing annually since the initiation of surface water withdrawal at Round Butte Dam.

We need to develop the political will to push PGE to alter dam operations in a fashion that eliminates the nutrient loading of the lower Deschutes River.  This is possible now with the adaptive management language in the dam operating license.

We also need the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to stop ignoring the ongoing violations of water quality standards in the lower Deschutes River.  This will require in-depth water quality studies that could take years to get done.  So it needs to start now.  This is the long-term remedy to the algae problems in the lower Deschutes River.

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

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Our Year End Donor Report – Thank you for your Support!


2014 End of Year Report

The Deschutes River Alliance is pleased to announce the publication of our first Year End Donor Report.

One purpose of the Year End Report is to note our accomplishments since our inception in August 2013, particularly highlighting our 2014 Science Investigation and Work Plan.  The main purpose is to recognize our donors who generously supported the DRA in our first year.

You can view the report here.

The Report also has a message from DRA Board President Greg McMillan, a description of the scientific foundation for the DRA, our major accomplishments, a summary of our objectives for 2015, and a 2014 financial summary.  There is also a list of DRA donors who contributed to our work in 2013 and 2014 (through early November).

We are extremely grateful for your support in our first year of existence.

Since the publication of this Year End Report, the DRA has received additional support from many individuals whose names may not be on the Report, but are found on our website here.

If you have not donated before, now is a perfect time to support the DRA and our 2015 Science and Advocacy Work!

This is also the final few weeks to join the Founding Circle. The Founding Circle will be a permanent recognition of DRA supporters who donate $1,000 or more before January 1st.

Again, thank you for your support and best wishes for a healthy and productive 2015.

Warmly, and on behalf of the entire Board of Directors,


Greg McMillan

Board President

In the Hot Deschutes Canyon, the River is Now Colder

Yes, you read that right.  The lower Deschutes River is now running colder.  This is due to a change in Portland General Electric and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs temperature and flow management at the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex.

Sources at PGE state the new temperature (which is now running at about 55 to 56 degrees at the outflow of the Pelton Re-regulation Dam) is the result of increasing the bottom draw component of the bottom-surface water mix at the Selective Water Withdrawal (SWW) Tower at Round Butte Dam.  The bottom draw is now 45% of the blend being discharged.

Selective Water Withdrawal Facility in Lake Billy Chinook Photo by Greg McMillan

Selective Water Withdrawal Facility in Lake Billy Chinook
Photo by Greg McMillan

We have learned that this is being done as part of a feasibility study to determine if there is enough cold water stored at the bottom of the reservoir to support decreasing the previous temperatures being created at the SWW Tower.

Hopefully this cold water release becomes more than a feasibility study.  The immediate impact on the river is obvious.  The temperature was decreased with the new blend starting the day before the Deschutes River Alliance initiated two weeks of continuous water quality monitoring based on our 2014 Science Work Plan and Investigation.  The change in water quality has been immediate.  Turbidity especially has improved, but so have other parameters.

Photo by David Moskowitz

Photo by David Moskowitz

Increased use of bottom draw water might also be diluting the nutrient load present in surface water, and the new blend certainly should carry less algae.  It is too early in the process, and too late in the algae growing season, to see if this will improve the algae situation in the lower river.

We had several meetings regarding temperature regulation with PGE in 2013.  At the time, PGE was fairly intransigent in regard to changing temperature management.  We are delighted to see an increased level of flexibility in evaluating management of the dams to benefit the health of the lower Deschutes River.

The DRA will be advocating for maintaining this new temperature management regime.  We will also be continuing our research into other water quality parameters that have changed as a consequence of the use of reservoir surface water in dam discharge, as well as the biologic consequences of reservoir surface water withdrawal.

This is good news but there remains much to investigate and understand to ensure that the water quality parameters of all water entering the lower Deschutes promotes a healthy river ecology.

Thanks for your interest and support.

Greg McMillan


Director of Science and Conservation

The Deschutes River Needs Your Help!

Yes we need your help! 

The Deschutes River Alliance is nearing the date when we have to sign a contract to begin the thermal and algae imaging on the lower Deschutes River.  This is the most expensive part of our science based investigation into the causes of the algae proliferation and apparent declines in aquatic insects that are threatening our river.  The imaging studies will cost $85,000.


So far, since our inception, and thanks to the generosity of our donors, the Deschutes River Alliance has raised $85,000.  That just covers the aerial imaging.  We need to also fund the complete science program as well as the cost of support for our work.  Please help us get this important work done.  If you fish the Deschutes, please donate.  If you love the Deschutes, please donate.  If the Deschutes is your home river, please donate.  If you haven’t donated to the Deschutes River Alliance yet, now is the time.  If you’ve donated in the past, please consider your ability to donate again.

Photo by Greg McMillan

Photo by Greg McMillan

Saving a river takes a community effort.  We all have to pitch in.  We will have many volunteers at work this summer and hundreds of hours will be spent collecting data, algae and water samples.  Once the field work is complete, the samples must  be analyzed and reports written.  All of this work is being undertaken by volunteers, but the water chemistry instruments, lab fees, and costs associated with report production all take money.

Photo by David Moskowitz

Photo by David Moskowitz

Please do your part and please contribute today!  The Deschutes River is counting on you.   To those who have already donated, please know you have our undying gratitude.

Thank you for your support,

Greg McMillan, Board President and Director of Science and Conservation

and the Deschutes River Alliance Board and Staff

A Special Thanks!


Some folks talk about supporting conservation and saving our rivers.  Others do something about it.  On the evening of May 13, 2014, the Fly Fishers Club of Oregon really did something about it.  The club made the Deschutes River Alliance the beneficiary of their annual Keith Hansen Memorial Conservation Paddle Raise.  The paddle raise was held after a brief description of what the DRA does, and a touching, stirring description of what the lower Deschutes River meant to the late Dr. Keith Hansen, provided by his wife Lisa Hansen.

KSH and SAB on Deschutes

Lisa made the first paddle raise, a contribution of $1000 to become a Founding Circle Donor, and was quickly followed by others.  The generosity shown by the Fly Fishers Club of Oregon was greatly appreciated by those of us here at the DRA.  The money raised is going towards our science based research program that will continue to define the extent of declines of aquatic insect hatches, dissemination of nuisance algae, and the nature of water quality changes in the lower river.

We want to extend a very heartfelt thanks to the Flyfisher Foundation and the Fly Fishers Club of Oregon for their generosity, which apparently broke all previous records for this event.  We promise to make very good use of their contribution to our efforts.


Greg McMillan                                                        David Moskowitz

President                                                                  Executive Director

Lower Deschutes River Aquatic Insect Hatch Activity Report Authored by Rick Hafele

The Deschutes River Alliance (DRA) is pleased to announce the completion of the Lower Deschutes Macroinvertebrate Hatch Activity Survey Results report written by Rick Hafele, the acknowledged aquatic insect expert in the Pacific Northwest.

With a sense of deep appreciation for the work and expertise Rick Hafele put into this report, we announce that the report is available on the Deschutes River Alliance website.


We also want to express our appreciation to John Smeraglio of Deschutes Canyon Fly Shop, Damien Nurre of Deep Canyon Outfitters,


and Steve Light of Deschutes Angler Fly Shop for their combined contributions to the report.

Steve Light

Steve Light

This report documents, for the first time, what many anglers have been concerned about on the lower Deschutes River.  The bug hatches have changed.  Rick designed a data collection form for guides to use on the lower river to report their observations of insect hatches during float trips on the river.  The three guides who participated this year are all very knowledgeable regarding aquatic insect identification.

March Brown mayfly by David Moskowitz

March Brown mayfly by David Moskowitz

The news in the report is not good.  Something is changing in the lower river.  We can’t say yet what those changes are.  But we do know that it’s not just the  aquatic insects.  The river bottom has become increasingly covered with golden brown algae over the past few years.  We fear that the algae is linked to the changes being observed in bug hatches.  There are multiple documents now on our website that establish how we arrived at this conclusion.

Pale Evening Dun Photo by David Moskowitz

Pale Evening Dun
Photo by David Moskowitz

This summer we will be embarking on an aggressive science based data collection effort that will look for changes in water quality, document changes in algae production and identify the species involved.  We will also be doing a broader more robust collection of data regarding aquatic insect hatches.

Special thanks to the many that are helping making this possible.  Our state and federal agency partners have been essential to this undertaking.  The same needs to be said of the volunteers who are helping us.  And a very special thanks goes out to the Deschutes River Alliance donors who are making this possible.

If you would like to support the 2014 Hatch Survey and Report, please consider making a contribution today!

Donate Now!

Fish and Wade Local – by Greg McMillan

Packed and Ready to go. Photo by David Moskowitz

Packed and Ready to go. Photo by David Moskowitz

I confess.  I’m sitting here in a small sea of self-pity.  I was supposed to be heading out in April on a bucket trip to the Florida Keys.  There are two friends of mine in the Keys who are former guides there.  I’d been invited to come spend time on each of their boats fishing for all of the usual species with big game rods and reels.

But my own river, my home river, is taking precedence.  Our DRA science plan will be kicking into gear soon, there are logistics to resolve, fundraising to be done, and someone has to be floating the lower Deschutes starting in April to keep an eye on the infamous algae as well as the aquatic insect hatches.

Excessive algae growth -Summer 2013. Photo by Greg McMillan

Excessive algae growth -Summer 2013. Photo by Greg McMillan

It made me think though about locavores.  You know, those folks who by choice and inclination prefer to eat locally or regionally grown and prepared food.  Locavores are more intimately tied to season and geographic place by the food they eat.

A Deschutes River Locavore. Photo by David Moskowitz

A Deschutes River Locavore. Photo by David Moskowitz

So it should be with fishing.  I believe we should always have a preference for fishing our local waters.  It makes us more aware of the passing of seasons.  By the water we fish being a constant we eliminate a lot of variables by turning unknowns into known entities and hence learn subtleties we would never learn by fishing new waters constantly.  We spend more time catching fish because we know where the fish are (sometimes) and what hatches to expect (hopefully).  We also learn to sense change in our home waters.

March Brown mayfly by David Moskowitz

March Brown mayfly by David Moskowitz

And so it is with the lower Deschutes.  Starting three years ago a number of us who spend large amounts of time on the lower river sensed and observed change.  Without the lower Deschutes being our locavore river, we wouldn’t have noticed.  If we hadn’t noticed, we wouldn’t be figuring out what has gone wrong.

As much as I love travel and exploring new places and fishing for different species, I will never complain about fishing my home river, the Deschutes. I can’t get enough of the Deschutes.  I guess that makes me kind of like a locavore.  And my sea of pity for not going to the Florida Keys seems to be greatly diminished at this moment.

Photo by David Moskowitz

Photo by David Moskowitz