New Analysis Shows Significant Ecological Decline in Lower Deschutes River After Commencement of Selective Water Withdrawal Operations

Photo by Brian O’Keefe

In the years since Selective Water Withdrawal (SWW) operations began at the Pelton Round Butte Complex, longtime Deschutes River users have observed and reported what appear to be major ecological changes below the dams. A new report confirms these observations. A new analysis by Portland State University Assistant Professor Patrick Edwards, Ph.D., establishes that the macroinvertebrate community in the lower Deschutes River has significantly changed since surface water from Lake Billy Chinook began to be released through the SWW tower downstream into the lower river. According to Professor Edwards’ analysis, the post-SWW community contains “more non-insect taxa, such as worms and snails, and other taxa that are tolerant to poor stream conditions.” Further, there are now fewer “mayfly, stonefly and caddisfly taxa that are sensitive to poor stream conditions.”

Some background on Dr. Edwards’ study is useful. In April 2016, R2 Resource Consultants, a company under contract to Portland General Electric, released a Lower Deschutes River Macroinvertebrate and Periphyton Study. This was a four-year study, mandated by the Pelton Round Butte Project’s Clean Water Act certification, that aimed to compare post-SWW conditions in the lower Deschutes River to pre-SWW conditions that were documented in a baseline study.

Round Butte Dam and the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower.

The conclusions in the R2 study were perplexing. Among other findings, the authors stated that “[s]tudy results did not identify large changes in the macroinvertebrate community before and after SWW implementation.” The DRA Science Team, which had been following the development of this study closely, identified several problems with the final report, and in the following weeks worked with several outside experts to assess the data analysis and statistical methods used in the study.

Then, a few weeks after the R2 report was issued, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) stepped in. In a letter to PGE, ODEQ deemed the R2 report inadequate and deficient in several key components, and requested that PGE provide a response to correct the “serious shortcomings” in its analysis.

PGE responded to the ODEQ letter by stating that it would address the agency’s concerns and would summarize this additional work in an addendum to the original report—a process PGE estimated would take 6-12 months to complete. It now has been 19 months since that response letter was sent, and the promised addendum still has not issued.

In the same letter, PGE stated that despite its shortcomings, the initial report—which had already been submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) —satisfied PGE’s obligations under the FERC license for macroinvertebrate monitoring. In other words, PGE claimed it had met its requirements with a report that ODEQ had identified as deficient in several respects.

We at the DRA felt it was essential that an accurate analysis of the pre- and post-SWW macroinvertebrate data be completed as quickly as possible. To that end, we contracted with Dr. Edwards to perform a thorough and accurate statistical analysis of the same data used in the R2 report. Dr. Edwards is highly qualified to perform this analysis, as his PhD in environmental science included extensive use of multivariate statistic—an analytical technique commonly used to assess changes in macroinvertebrate communities. The purpose of Dr. Edwards’ analysis was to assess the characteristics of the macroinvertebrate community pre- and post-SWW.

Photo by Brian O’Keefe.

The results of Dr. Edwards’ analysis are truly concerning. Data collected in the springtime showed that the post-SWW community has significantly fewer mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies—all species that are more sensitive to poor stream conditions. Data from both the spring and fall seasons showed an increase in taxa that are more tolerant to poor stream conditions, including worms and snails.

As a result of Dr. Edwards’ analysis, there is sound science confirming what many have suspected for years: SWW operations are significantly altering the ecology of the lower Deschutes River. The discharge of surface water from Lake Billy Chinook has caused serious, negative impacts to water quality in the lower river, and those impacts are leading to significant changes in the insect community below the dam complex. Negative changes to aquatic insects are a serious concern, as they support the entire food chain within the river, particularly resident trout, juvenile salmon and steelhead, and wildlife along the river – including birds and bats. Sound science establishes that these changes are statistically significant. DRA believes strongly that these changes can and must be reversed.

Presumably, if PGE’s initial analysis of this data had been sound, efforts in the intervening months and years could have been focused on addressing the ecological decline in the lower river. We certainly hope that work will commence, at long last, but we are proceeding with legal action to ensure no further delay.

For more information about Dr. Edwards’ analysis, read Rick Hafele’s summary of the report here.

To read the full report, click here.


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An Overview of Dr. Edwards’ Aquatic Invertebrate Study Analysis

By Rick Hafele

As recently reported, the DRA has just posted to its website a new report, by Dr. Patrick Edwards, that provides a detailed statistical analysis of the aquatic macroinvertebrates in the Deschutes River before and after the commencement of surface water releases from the Selective Water Withdrawal (SWW) tower at Round Butte Dam. Dr. Edwards’ report provides important confirmation that since the SWW Tower began operating, aquatic life in the lower Deschutes River (the 100 miles of river below the dams) has changed significantly for the worse.

Dr. Edwards’ report is actually a new analysis of data originally collected and analyzed for PGE by R2 Resource Consultants, as required under the Pelton Round Butte Project’s Clean Water Act certification. The R2 report and data were released to the public in April 2016. Unfortunately R2’s original analysis was flawed. As a result, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) requested that PGE have the data reanalyzed using proper methods. It has now been 19 months since that request by ODEQ, and PGE has yet to release a new analysis of the study.

To ensure that a new unbiased analysis would be completed, the DRA commissioned Dr. Edwards to reanalyze the data from the R2 study. To further ensure that the methods used by Dr. Edwards were correct and based on the best available statistical methods, the DRA had the report peer reviewed by one of the top environmental statisticians in the country.

While we invite all of our supporters to read the lower Deschutes River aquatic macroinvertebrate report by Dr. Edwards, the analysis relies on a number of complex statistical methods; unless you have a degree in statistics, it might leave you scratching your head. For that reason a less technical explanation of the analysis and its findings is provided here.

Photo by Rick Hafele

Why Aquatic Invertebrates and Algae?

            You might first wonder why aquatic macroinvertebrates (this includes all aquatic insects, as well as other invertebrates like snails and worms) and algae were the only aquatic life forms sampled to assess the possible impacts of surface water withdrawal on the ecology of the lower Deschutes River. Aren’t trout, steelhead, and salmon much more important as a recreational resource and commercial commodity? Certainly, fish outweigh invertebrates and algae in recreational and economic importance, but in terms of ecosystem health, if the organisms at the bottom of the food chain aren’t healthy and sustainable then the rest of the species further up the food chain will suffer.

There are several reasons why these lower food chain communities, especially aquatic invertebrates, are often closely examined in stream health studies.

  1. Aquatic invertebrates can be sampled more effectively and at less cost than fish. This is particularly true in a big river like the lower Deschutes. This doesn’t mean that fish studies in the lower Deschutes aren’t possible or shouldn’t be done but, to get a relatively quick and accurate assessment of possible impacts to the aquatic ecosystem, aquatic invertebrates are a good choice.
  2. Because the life cycle of aquatic invertebrates is much shorter than fish (one year or less for most invertebrates compared to four to six years for most salmonids) they will show a response to environmental changes much faster than will fish. This is critical if one wants to identify ecosystem problems as soon as possible.
  3. There is a long history within the study of stream ecology of sampling aquatic invertebrate populations to assess stream health and function. This means there are well-established methods for sampling and analyzing the data, and for interpreting the results. For example, when certain invertebrate populations thrive while others are lost or diminished, prior experience on other rivers can help us understand what is happening on the lower Deschutes.
  4. Last, the number of species of aquatic invertebrates found in Western rivers and streams is much greater than the diversity of fish, giving researchers a broader, more robust community of organisms to study. For example, invertebrate studies often collect more than 100 different species from a single Western stream, compared to 3-6 species of fish. In addition, the sensitivity of these different invertebrates to altered water quality and habitat conditions have been well documented for a wide range of species, and the sensitivity of different species to changes in water quality varies over a wide range. As a result, changes in the species composition of invertebrates provide a sensitive indicator of impacts to the biological health of streams and rivers. For example, decades of studies have shown that stoneflies are more sensitive to poor water quality than most other species. Therefore, a decline in their diversity or abundance is one of the first signs of declining stream health.

Photo by Rick Hafele.

Statistical Methods Used

            The purpose of Dr. Edwards’ study was to determine if the aquatic invertebrate community sampled after surface withdrawal began had changed in a statistically significant way from the community present before surface withdrawal. To make this determination, Dr. Edwards used three statistical methods:

  1. Multivariate ordinations
  2. A measure of species diversity
  3. A measure of species pollution tolerance

Multivariate ordinations:

Multivariate statistics is a powerful tool that you won’t find discussed in Statistics 101. This powerful and complex field of statistical analysis requires considerable experience to use and understand. Multivariate statistical methods like Non-metric Multi Dimensional Scaling (NMDS) are commonly used today partly because modern computing power makes it possible.

Basically, NMDS takes all 100+ invertebrate taxa from each sample and plots the relative abundance of each taxon in each sample in multidimensional space, and then compresses the multiple dimensions into a two-dimensional graph. The distance between dots on the plot indicate their degree of similarity; dots close together indicates a similar invertebrate community between samples, while dots farther apart indicates the communities present were different. Whether the distance between two groups of dots is statistically significant (meaning that the difference noted is very likely the result of actual differences and not due to random chance alone) is determined by performing other statistical tests.

The results of this analysis comparing the pre-tower to post-tower samples from the lower Deschutes River, showed that a statistically significant change occurred to the invertebrate community from the pre-tower to post-tower periods. What kind of change occurred is addressed with the other two analyses discussed below.

Measure of species diversity:

One of the most common measures of ecological or biological health is the diversity of species present. Healthy ecosystems are diverse ecosystems. In stream studies, healthier stream conditions are indicated by invertebrate communities with more species that are sensitive to poor water quality (higher temperature, lower dissolved oxygen or nutrient enrichment), relative to the number of species that are more tolerant of poor stream conditions. Mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies are the three groups of aquatic invertebrates with the most sensitive species to poor water quality. A decline in these sensitive species relative to species known to be more tolerant of degraded water is a sign that water quality is becoming degraded and constraining aquatic invertebrate populations. The metric EPTr refers to the percent of species of mayflies (E), stoneflies (P) and caddisflies (T) relative to the number of other species in the sample. In this study the metric EPTr was used to assess changes in the diversity of the sensitive taxa. The results show that at sites in the lower Deschutes River, EPTr declined in post-tower samples from pre-tower samples in both the spring and fall, and that the decline was statistically significant in the spring samples. A similar statistically significant decline was not observed at the three sites above the Round-Butte Dam Complex.

Measure of pollution tolerance:

As mentioned above, different species of aquatic invertebrates have different tolerance levels to water pollution. Years of researching the sensitivity of individual taxa to water quality conditions has produced a set of “tolerance” scores for each taxa. The metric used in this study is called RICHTOL, which calculates the mean tolerance score of all taxa present in a sample. Tolerance scores for individual taxa range from 0 to 10, with lower scores indicating more sensitivity to polluted water—species with these lower scores are more likely to decline in abundance as water quality declines. This analysis shows a statistically significant increase in the RICHTOL score in post-tower samples compared to pre-tower samples below the dam complex during both the spring and fall sample periods. An increase of this score indicates an increase in taxa present with greater tolerance to poor water quality, strongly suggesting that water quality has declined and this decline is having a negative affect on the aquatic invertebrate community. Again the sites above the dam complex did not show a similar significant increase in tolerant taxa.

Round Butte Dam and the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower.

Conclusions

  In summary, here are the principal findings from Dr. Edwards’ statistical analysis:

  1. A multivariate statistical analysis, comparing the complete invertebrate community in the lower Deschutes River from before tower operations to after tower operations, found that a statistically significant change in the community occurred.
  2. Comparing pre-tower samples to post-tower samples showed that a decline in the percent of sensitive species of mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies occurred at sites in the lower Deschutes River.
  3. A comparison of pre-tower to post-tower samples also found that taxa tolerant to poor water quality conditions increased significantly at sites in the lower Deschutes River below the dams, but no significant increase occurred at sites above the dams.

These results confirm: 1) a significant change has occurred to the macroinvertebrate community in the lower Deschutes River after tower operations and surface water releases began, and 2) a significant decline in pollution sensitive species (mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies) and a significant increase in pollution tolerant species (primarily worms and snails) has occurred in the lower Deschutes River following surface water releases at the SWW tower.

Decades of stream studies have documented similar impacts due to nutrient enrichment and the resulting changes in water chemistry and algal communities. For example, as long ago as the early 1970s stream ecologists understood that large dams and reservoirs can impact waters downstream, as shown in the following quote from the seminal book on stream ecology, The Ecology of Running Waters, by H.B.N. Hynes:

The great photosynthetic activity in large impoundments has marked effects upon the chemistry of the water, raising pH and oxygen content and reducing the hardness of the water. The influence of a large dam is therefore profound and it extends a long way downstream.

             Anyone who has spent time on the lower Deschutes River after the SWW tower began operating knows there have been negative changes to water quality and the aquatic community. For example, if you have a house on the river, the simple fact that you no longer have to close your door at night to keep the bugs out when a porch light is on is a clear signal that something isn’t right. Observant anglers have seen crane fly numbers fall from very abundant to nearly non-existent. So why worry about statistics? Unfortunately those who might disagree with your porch light results or your onstream information on insect life may argue that your observations are anecdotal and don’t “prove” there is a biological impact from SWW operation. Such “proof” can be elusive, which is where the use of statistical analysis becomes important. The use of advanced statistical methods sets a standard for the level of confidence that the observed changes are real and not due to random variation.

Dr. Edwards’ analysis confirms what river users have been observing since the SWW tower began operating – the health of the river has declined. Fortunately, we know there is a simple way to reverse this decline in the river’s biological health: a significant increase in the amount of cooler, cleaner water discharged from the bottom of Lake Billy Chinook into the lower river.

For an introduction to Dr. Edwards’ report, click here.

To read the full report, click here:


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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.

 


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

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Third Anniversary!

DRA_logo_sheet

Yes, the DRA is now three years old! And what a wild ride it’s been!

In August 2013, we filed as a non-profit corporation with the State of Oregon. We started on a shoestring budget, which consisted mostly of contributions from members of the Board of Directors. In January 2014 we sent out our first fundraising appeal. It was far more successful that we had imagined it would be.

To those donors, who recognized the need our mission addressed, we wish to thank you. Your trusted us when we had no track record. To the members of the Founding Circle, we would like to offer special thanks.

From that beginning, we have maintained a spirit of frugal but effective activism. For most of our existence, including the present, we’ve had only one paid employee. We have no offices. We’ve kept our overhead low. We contract out services as needed.

Greg McMillan and Larry Marxer taking water quality measurements in February, 2016. Photo by Andrew Dutterer.

Greg McMillan and Larry Marxer taking water quality measurements in February, 2016. Photo by Andrew Dutterer.

What we do have is excellent water quality monitoring equipment. We have board members with scientific expertise and experience. We have an outstanding legal team. And we have a passionate desire to protect the lower Deschutes River.

Larry Marxer and intern Cory McCaffrey calibrating our data sonde. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Larry Marxer and intern Cory McCaffrey calibrating our data sonde. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Here are some of our accomplishments to date:

  • Beginning in 2011, as the Lower Deschutes River Coalition (prior to becoming the DRA), we conducted meetings with Portland General Electric. These meetings included data presentations and roundtable discussions of the problems being seen in the lower river by guides and recreational users.
  • We began sampling and photographing aquatic insects and algae in 2013.
  • In collaboration with PGE, we established a water temperature-monitoring array in 2013.
  • DRA Board member and renowned aquatic entomologist Rick Hafele designed an adult aquatic insect hatch survey to gather data on hatch timing and densities. That study continues on an annual basis documenting changes in hatches on the lower Deschutes River. Rick is also managing our ongoing benthic aquatic insect-monitoring program. Neither PGE nor the resource agencies are monitoring aquatic insects at this time.
Rick Hafele providing training for adult aquatic insect hatch observers. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Rick Hafele providing training for adult aquatic insect hatch observers. Photo by Greg McMillan.

  • In December 2013 we held a science-planning meeting with multiple agencies and PGE. Our science plans have been a product of that meeting.
  • In July 2014, we did a three-day (72 hour) water quality monitoring synoptic at five sites (most of them remote) on the lower Deschutes River.
  • We conducted a second three-day water quality monitoring synoptic at three sites in August 2014.
  • We contracted with Quantum Spatial to conduct thermal imaging of the lower Deschutes River and the area around the three dams of the Pelton-Round Butte Complex.
  • We attempted to collaborate with PGE on a water quality study in Lake Billy Chinook and the lower Deschutes River. The initial planning meeting was cancelled by PGE without follow-up.
  • In January 2015, we submitted objections regarding the Low Impact Hydropower Institute’s certification of the Pelton-Round Butte Hydroelectric Complex.
  • By spring of 2015 we were starting our own algae and water quality study on Lake Billy Chinook and the lower Deschutes River. That study continues today. Cost of equipment and lab fees to date: $30,000. Value of the data: priceless.
Larry Marxer installing a Hobo temp water temperature monitor. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Larry Marxer installing a Hobo temp water temperature monitor. Photo by Greg McMillan.

  • In the summer of 2015, warm water temperatures in the lower Deschutes River contributed to fish die-offs near the mouth and near the confluence with the Warm Springs River. These events were first detected and reported by the DRA and DRA supporters.
  • In the fall of 2015, with the permission and funding of a private property owner on the lower Deschutes River, we established a monitoring station to perform benthic aquatic insect sampling, continuous water quality monitoring, and photo documentation of algal growth. We then acquired the permission of private landowners to set up a second study site in the Kaskela area.
Rick Hafele examines contents of a kick screen on the lower Deschutes River. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Rick Hafele examines contents of a kick screen on the lower Deschutes River. Photo by Greg McMillan.

  • In September 2015 we gathered the five conservation groups who are signatories to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license for the Pelton-Round Butte Complex to discuss the problems resulting from selective water withdrawal.
  • In October 2015 we appealed the Low Impact Hydropower Institute’s certification of the PRB Complex. Conditions were imposed on the certification as a result of our interventions.
  • In December 2015 we, along with the conservation group signatories to the PRB license, met with PGE to ask for measures to lower river temperatures when high temperatures pose a risk for fish. This request was denied, and PGE foreclosed the possibility of any future meetings.
  • In spring of 2016, we formed our legal team. We subsequently served Portland General Electric with a sixty-day notice of intent to sue based on water quality violations.

This is only a partial list of our accomplishments. These are the kinds of things that are happening at the DRA on a day in, day out basis, and now on a year-to-year basis. Volunteers do much of this work.

Rick Hafele examining trout stomach contents. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Rick Hafele examining trout stomach contents. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Our next year looks to be more exciting and more productive. Check back here over the next few weeks for announcements!

In the meantime, we appreciate all of the support shown to us in the past three years. To all of you who have donated, volunteered, or otherwise supported us, thank you! With your support, our combined passion and love for the river will accomplish great things.


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

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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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Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Notifies Portland General Electric of “Serious Shortcomings” in R2 Resource Consultants Report on Insects and Algae in Lower Deschutes River

Round Butte Dam and the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Round Butte Dam and the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Citing flawed laboratory methodology and inappropriately applied statistical analysis, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) informed Portland General Electric (PGE) in a May 23, 2016 letter that PGE’s report by R2 Resource Consultants has been deemed inadequate and deficient in several key components.

The primary purpose of the R2 Resource Consultants study, titled “Final Report: Lower Deschutes River Macroinvertebrate and Periphyton Study” and mandated by the dam operators’ Clean Water Act Section 401 Water Quality Certification, is to determine whether or not operation of the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower at Round Butte Dam has had an impact on the ecology of the river below the dam complex. A baseline study was done in 1999-2001. The present study was intended to compare current in-river conditions in the lower Deschutes River to prior conditions as they were documented in the baseline study.

ODEQ has given PGE until June 30, 2016 to “respond with a plan for mitigating or eliminating the shortcomings of the study.”

As a result, the study’s conclusion that water quality and overall health has improved in the lower river has been rendered an assertion without scientific support. The ODEQ review even went on to say that there are indications that the study supports the opposite conclusion and that water quality has been reduced.

The ODEQ review of the study also expressed the same concern that the DRA had previously described regarding the collection of water quality data and the suggestion by the authors that unfavorable water quality results in the report were due to poorly calibrated instruments.

DRA Analysis of the Report

The DRA had asked four highly qualified individuals (each has a PhD in a field specific to the R2 report) to critique the study. We recently received the first of those critiques back. It is critical of the statistical methodology employed by R2 Resource Consultants and confirms ODEQ’s analysis.

We sought these four reviews as we had major concerns about the R2 report. Almost all of our concerns are mirrored in the ODEQ analysis.

The Selective Water Withdrawal Tower above Round Butte Dam. Photo by Greg McMillan.

The Selective Water Withdrawal Tower above Round Butte Dam. Photo by Greg McMillan.

How Did This Happen?

The macroinvertebrate and periphyton study is a highly important component of the monitoring of the Pelton-Round Hydroelectric Complex impact on the Deschutes River. The installation and implementation of the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower was the single largest anthropogenic change that has been imposed on the lower Deschutes River in the past fifty years. The impacts of that change have to be monitored effectively using appropriate methodology and analysis. This sort of monitoring is mandated by the Water Quality Management and Monitoring Plan, a part of the Clean Water Act Section 401 Certification that sets standards for operations at the Pelton-Round Butte Hydroelectric Complex.

This is the only way to determine if tower operations are having harmful effects on the lower river.

The dam operation permits and certification call for “adaptive management” in the event that there are problems created by Selective Water Withdrawal. To date, the only “adaptive management” invoked by PGE has been to seek agreements from ODEQ not to enforce various water quality requirements imposed on dam operations. The intent of the macroinvertebrate and periphyton study is to determine if that has or has not resulted in damage to the ecology of the lower river.

So the stakes are high for PGE. If this report were to document a decline in water quality and unfavorable changes to the ecology of the river below the dam complex, changes in dam operations would need to be made.

R2 Resource Consultants seem to be highly qualified to conduct studies such as this. But the work was done as a paid service to PGE.

PGE has been entrusted with the responsibility of monitoring for adverse changes to the river system as a consequence of the SWW Tower and its operation. This responsibility needs to be undertaken with a rigorous and transparent approach to assessing the state of a public resource affected by their operations. Anything else is a violation of that responsibility.

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

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The Troubling Loss of Antocha Crane Flies

By Greg McMillan and Rick Hafele

Antocha Crane Fly. Photo by Rick Hafele.

Antocha crane fly. Photo by Rick Hafele.

Antocha is just one genus of the family Tipulidae, a group well known as crane flies. As crane flies go Antocha is rather small, and while most crane fly larvae live in slow moving or stagnant water with silty or muddy substrate (some are also terrestrial), Antocha larvae prefer riffle areas of streams with clean cobble substrate. This little crane fly is found throughout North America, including most if not all of the streams in the Deschutes watershed. Until recently it was one of the insects of the lower Deschutes River that appeared every summer in moderate to large numbers. Whether trout found it of interest could be debated, but its presence was one of those reminders that summer had arrived on the lower Deschutes – but no longer.

Rick Hafele and Greg McMillan first noted the absence of Antocha crane flies in the lower Deschutes River in July of 2013. Until that time these dipterids had been abundant in the lower Deschutes River. By the summer of 2013 other species of aquatic insects had also been observed to be in decline, but Antocha just seemed to have disappeared.

We waited until 2014 to confirm our 2013 observations regarding the missing Antocha before saying anything publicly. We reported our observations here in our blog, and then through the observations of others in our 2014 Lower Deschutes River Macroinvertebrate Hatch Activity Survey Results. Our reports regarding the missing crane flies were initially met with little interest, if not skepticism, by resource management agencies and the Pelton-Round Butte Dam operators, but then confirmed by the R2 Resources Interim Report in the Portland General Electric Aquatic Macroinvertebrate and Periphyton Study. The final report from that study also notes that the disappearance of the crane flies in the lower Deschutes River occurred after the inception of selective water withdrawal at Round Butte Dam.

Antocha crane flies mating and laying eggs in the lower Deschutes River before surface water withdrawal began at Round Butte Dam. Photo by John Hazel.

Antocha crane flies mating and laying eggs in the lower Deschutes River before surface water withdrawal began at Round Butte Dam. Photo by John Hazel.

The final report from the PGE Lower Deschutes Aquatic Macroinvertebrate and Periphyton Study also mentions studies done on the Crooked River and Middle Deschutes (Vinson, 2005; and Vinson and Dinger, 2007; Reports prepared for U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, National Aquatic Monitoring Center) that showed declines in Antocha populations in those rivers. It is worth noting that those studies were done in the years prior to implementation of surface water withdrawal from Lake Billy Chinook at Round Butte Dam in late 2009.

The PGE study concludes that:

“… Antocha crane flies were widely distributed in pre-SWW samples above and below the project but nearly absent post-SWW from nearly all sites including the Deschutes and Crooked Rivers upstream from the project. Significant numbers were observed post-SWW only in the Metolius River, a unique spring-dominated system with minimal development compared to the Crooked and Deschutes systems. Most likely, this change is a result of a broader environmental pattern as opposed to project-related effect. It is unknown whether this pattern represents normal annual variability or a longer term (sic) trend. However, this observation highlights the value of the upstream study sites in distinguishing project from non-project changes.” (Final Report, Lower Deschutes River Macroinvertebrate and Periphyton Study, R2 Resource Consultants, 2016, page 100.)

That conclusion seems to be hastily arrived at, and appears to us to be biased towards exonerating dam operations as a contributor to the disappearance of Antocha in the lower river. Yes, studies show that Antocha crane flies have nearly disappeared from the Crooked and Deschutes rivers above the project, and that decline happened prior to surface water withdrawal from Round Butte Dam. Even though the loss of Antocha is still evident a decade after it was first reported, the PGE report suggests that this could be due to “annual variability.”

The study’s authors go on to suggest that the only other alternative is that this is due to a “broader environmental pattern.” Yet they state that the Antocha population is intact in the Metolius River.

In another aquatic invertebrate study of Whychus Creek, Antocha was found to be present from 2005-2014 (Mazzacano, Effectiveness Monitoring in Whychus Creek; Benthic Macroinvertebrate Communities in 2005, 2009, and 2011-2014, The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, page 58).

Whychus Creek is a tributary to the Middle Deschutes River. The confluence of Whychus Creek and the Middle Deschutes River is about three miles above Lake Billy Chinook. A great deal of habitat restoration work has taken place in Whychus Creek in recent years thanks to the work of groups like the Deschutes Land Trust, the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, Trout Unlimited, and others. The Portland General Electric Pelton Fund, along with other sources, has provided funding for this work.

So in at least two other streams the Antocha populations are intact. It would be interesting to look at other streams in the basin to see what the status of Antocha is. We believe it was very hasty and preemptive to draw the conclusion that this is due to a “broader environmental pattern” when only limited data is available from other streams.

Basin studies show that the Middle Deschutes and Crooked rivers have large anthropogenic influences due to population centers and agricultural runoff. That in turn results in higher levels of nutrients that lead to algae growth. As noted in our 2015 Lower Deschutes River Macroinvertebrate Hatch Activity Survey Results, Antocha crane flies lay eggs in the splash zone of river rocks. Stalked diatom algae, which have become common in the lower Deschutes River since implementation of surface water withdrawal from Lake Billy Chinook, form a barrier to the bare rock Antocha seem to favor for reproduction in the lower Deschutes River. This probably makes egg laying impossible.

Stalked diatom algae covering splash zone of rocks in lower Deschutes River. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Stalked diatom algae covering splash zone of rocks in lower Deschutes River. Photo by Greg McMillan.

From mid-November until late May the water discharged from the Pelton-Round Butte Hydroelectric Project consists of 100% surface water draw from Lake Billy Chinook. Even during summer and fall months, there is a minimum of 35% surface water draw (Pelton Round Butte Project, FERC No. 2030, Water Quality Report, 2015). We know that for much of the year, surface water in the forebay of Round Butte Dam consists primarily of water from the Crooked and Middle Deschutes rivers (Deschutes River Alliance 2015 Water Quality Report and unpublished data from 2016, pending publication in 2017).

Given that Antocha crane flies disappeared from the Crooked and Middle Deschutes rivers prior to the institution of surface water withdrawal, and surface water withdrawal is heavily influenced by the water quality of these rivers, we believe that there is another hypothesis for the massive decline of Antocha in the lower Deschutes River. We propose that the causative agent of Antocha decline in those rivers is now being passed down into the lower Deschutes River as a consequence of surface water withdrawal at Round Butte Dam.

That cause could be any, or a combination, of several possible agents.

The first is the nutrients in surface water withdrawal at Round Butte Dam fueling the stalked diatom proliferation in the lower river, which is denying access to clean rock surfaces necessary for Antocha mating and egg-laying.

The second possible cause is that a pesticide or other agent entering the Crooked and Middle Deschutes Rivers is being transferred downstream in surface water from Lake Billy Chinook.

Antocha crane flies have also been found to be susceptible to parasitic infestations (International Review of Hydrobiology, Vol. 92. Issue 4-5, pg. 545-553, August 2007). This raises a host of issues that could possibly be related to the ecological changes brought by surface water withdrawal from Lake Billy Chinook. A parasite could have been transported to the lower river via surface water withdrawal at Round Butte Dam, or water conditions changed by surface water withdrawal, could now be favoring a parasite that has possibly infected Antocha.

How important is the disappearance of Antocha crane flies? That is hard to tell. However their disappearance from the lower Deschutes River, and the Crooked and Middle Deschutes rivers, should be taken as an indication of an ecological change. Their disappearance warrants deeper investigation and not just casual dismissal of a phenomenon that could be indicative of a larger ecological problem.

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

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