How Healthy Are Lower Deschutes River Redband Trout? Read Steve Pribyl’s Letter to ODFW.

Lower Deschutes River redband trout. Photo by Brian O’Keefe.

Last week Steve Pribyl, retired ODFW biologist on the lower Deschutes River and DRA board member, sent a letter to ODFW Director Curt Melcher and to each member of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission. The letter responds to recent ODFW assertions regarding the health and abundance of the lower Deschutes River redband trout population. Steve points out several critical misstatements from the agency that misrepresent the results of recent ODFW resident trout surveys. That letter can be read here.

As a brief summary, ODFW has performed electrofishing on the lower Deschutes River each April from 2014-2017 to capture and measure redband trout. After this year’s survey, an ODFW Field Report claimed there “is no indication the population has been adversely effected [sic]” by Selective Water Withdrawal operations, and that “Deschutes redband appeared to be in good abundance based on how easily [sic] they were to catch during this year’s monitoring.” SWW supporters have taken these statements and cited them repeatedly as evidence that the lower Deschutes redband trout population is as healthy and abundant as ever.

Obviously, we are all hopeful that the redband trout population below Pelton-Round Butte is healthy and abundant. However, as Steve explains, there is simply no way to know this based on the ODFW surveys performed to this point. These surveys have all been conducted to collect information on a few metrics, on a limited sample of trout, in only a few locations, at one point in time. This sampling is not designed to, nor is it capable of, estimating trout abundance and overall population health in the 100 miles of the lower Deschutes River. In fact, a 2016 ODFW field report specifically qualified the ability of these studies to assess trout abundance, stating “Abundance will not be evaluated due to the difficulty of accurately estimating trout abundance in large productive rivers like the Deschutes.”

Steve spent 20 years of his 30-year ODFW career on the lower Deschutes River, and performed many of the surveys that ODFW now claims to be “replicating.” In his view, ODFW’s statements on trout population health and abundance are extremely misleading, and are simply not supported by the survey data collected. We are disappointed that ODFW is making such unsupported statements, which are now being repeated by various Deschutes Basin stakeholders. And it is unfortunate that ODFW has not implemented adequate pre- and post-Selective Water Withdrawal monitoring studies to truly evaluate the population health of redband trout in the lower Deschutes River.

Lower Deschutes River Redband trout. Photo by Brian O’Keefe.

It is also unfortunate that such detailed studies were not mandated during the Pelton-Round Butte FERC relicensing process. At that time, ODFW had the authority to recommend various licensing conditions related to fish and wildlife. The agency did in fact recommend several such conditions, which were largely incorporated into the final FERC license. However, ODFW did not recommend that the licensees (PGE and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs) perform any type of baseline redband trout monitoring in the lower river, or any post-SWW follow-up monitoring to assess changes in population health and abundance below the Project. This was a missed opportunity: rather than requiring the licensees to monitor and assess redband health populations, any such studies must now be funded and performed by ODFW. The redband studies performed so far seem designed to minimize cost and staff time, rather than to make detailed, accurate assessments about the trout population.

We think it is also worth mentioning that in ODFW’s post-SWW reports on redband trout health, the agency has failed to mention the black spot disease epidemic currently being observed in the lower river. Any discussion of fish health in the lower Deschutes River right now must include the infections being regularly observed in caught fish. Given the high numbers of Black Spot-infected fish observed by anglers these last two years, it is highly unlikely that ODFW has failed to observe the disease in their surveys.

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.

In sum, it seems that native redband trout in the lower river have become a lower priority for the management agencies—and the Pelton-Round Butte licensees—than the salmon and steelhead being planted above the Project. This is truly unfortunate, as the lower river trout population is an incredible native resident resource, and much of the year is what draws anglers and others to the lower Deschutes River.

We urge you to read Steve’s letter.

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

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Third Anniversary!


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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Happy Holidays From The Staff and Board of Directors Of the Deschutes River Alliance!

We would like to wish everyone the happiest of holidays and all the best in the New Year!

Here at the DRA, Christmas came early this year.  Thanks to a special $20,000 donation from one of our supporters, we have been able to purchase water quality data equipment to create a semi-permanent water quality-monitoring site on the lower Deschutes River.

Photo by Brian O'Keefe.

Photo by Brian O’Keefe.

The water quality equipment we are acquiring with this special gift will give us the ability to monitor temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, turbidity and chlorophyll-a on an ongoing 24-7 basis.  We have already been doing aquatic insect sampling at the site where the equipment will be deployed, and will continue to do so throughout the 2016 year and beyond.  The site also has a high density of spawning gravel, and we’ll be able to document spawning periods and activity.

We are incredibly grateful for this gift and wish to thank the private donor who made this possible.

Photo by Greg McMillan.

Photo by Greg McMillan.

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

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Lower Deschutes River Water Temperatures Dropping

By Greg McMillan & The Board of Directors of the Deschutes River Alliance

It’s mid-July and it’s already been a very hot summer.  And a very bad summer for fish.  Agencies, anglers and fish advocates are worried about the long-term consequences of large fish kills.

In the upper Columbia Basin, dams are releasing cold water to attempt to cool the Columbia River to try to protect fish.  Extra water is being released from dams in Canada, Montana and Washington, according to an article recently posted on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s website.

A coalition of fishing and environmental groups is calling for a blanket closure of all rivers with salmon and steelhead populations if water temperatures exceed 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Centigrade).

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, effective July 18, has closed many streams to angling after 2 PM to protect wild fish from heat associated hooking mortality.

Lower Deschutes River. Photo by Brian O'Keefe.

Lower Deschutes River. Photo by Brian O’Keefe.

Changes in Dam Operations

Back on our own lower Deschutes River, the site of two salmon fish kills, water temperatures are dropping.  We would like to acknowledge the release of cold water from Lake Billy Chinook by the dam operators at the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex.  Portland General Electric and The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation own and operate the dams.  This is an important step in an attempt to improve conditions in the lower Deschutes River ecosystem, and possibly provide a cold-water refuge at the mouth of the lower Deschutes for Columbia River migrating fish.  The “Deschutes River Near Madras” gauge shown below is located in the tailrace just below the Pelton Reregulation Dam, the last dam of the three dam complex.

July 2015 water temperatures at Madras gauge. Source: USGS online.

July 2015 water temperatures at Madras gauge. Source: USGS online.

Although air temperatures have also been cooler, the cooler dam releases seem to be having an impact at the Moody temperature gauge at the mouth of the Deschutes River.

July 2015 water temperatures at Moody gauge. Source: USGS online.

July 2015 water temperatures at Moody gauge. Source: USGS online.

What Happens When Hot Temperatures Return?

Water temperatures will climb as air temperatures increase.  We would like to encourage the dam operators to continue to help mitigate the warm water temperatures in the river with cool water from the bottom of the reservoir, rather than once again warming the river with dam releases.  The water temperature at 260 feet of depth in front of Round Butte Dam was 49 degrees on Tuesday, July 14.  That is the level at which bottom water is drawn into the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower at Round Butte Dam.

We understand that the dam operators are concerned about depleting the supply of cold water at the bottom of Lake Billy Chinook.  Historically, for the 55 years of dam operation prior to implementation of the Selective Water Withdrawal system, this was apparently not a problem.  We have studied what happened last year when the dam operators lowered the discharge temperature (the temperature spike in August was due to a lightning strike and subsequent equipment malfunction):

July - October 2014 water temperatures at Madras gauge. Source: USGS online.

July – October 2014 water temperatures at Madras gauge. Source: USGS online.

From this graph you can see that it is apparent that the dam operators were able to discharge cool water until the end of September, when decreasing air temperatures cool the river.  We would be grateful for that temperature management to be undertaken again this year, when it’s critical for fish survival.

We have had only sporadic reports of single dead fish from guides floating the lower river the past several days.  Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that they found dead spring Chinook, mostly downstream from the confluence of the Warm Springs River with the lower Deschutes.  Many of those fish were apparently highly decomposed, which suggests death had occurred several days preceding their observation.

For the Future

We believe that a threshold peak water temperature should be determined so that in the future, when conditions begin to create thermal stress that leads to potentially lethal problems for fish, dam operations would change automatically.  Oregon Administrative Rules state that streams with salmon and trout rearing and migration should not exceed a seven-day average maximum temperature of 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit.   Discharge temperatures from the Pelton Reregulation Dam did not exceed these temperatures.  But river temperatures downstream from the dams did.  By discharging colder water using the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower, temperatures downstream from the dams could be proactively and automatically reduced and made safer for fish.

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

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Second Fish Kill Detected in Lower Deschutes River


By Greg McMillan & The Board of Directors of the Deschutes River Alliance

For the second time in a week, we’ve learned about a fish die-off in the lower Deschutes River.  This second fish kill is happening in the area of Whitehorse Rapids (25 miles upstream from Maupin at river mile 77, and 23 miles downstream from the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex) and consists of dead spring Chinook salmon.  A cause of death for these fish has not yet been determined.

Dead and dying spring Chinook were first reported by Taylor Geraths of TaylorMade Outfitters on Friday, July 10, and shortly thereafter confirmed on the same day by Deschutes River Alliance board member and Vice-President Damien Nurre, owner-operator of Deep Canyon Outfitters.  Both observed numbers of dead or dying spring Chinook between Whisky Dick Campground (river mile 78) and Nena Boat Launch (river mile 59).

Probable Cause of Death

There are two possible, and even likely, causes of these spring Chinook deaths.  The first is columnaris, which the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife believes is killing sockeye salmon at the lower end of the river.  The other is Ceratomyxa shasta, a not uncommon parasite in the Pacific Northwest.  It infects salmonids in warm water conditions.  Rates of C. shasta infections have reportedly been high in Chinook salmon exposed to Lake Billy Chinook (PGE Fisheries Workshop, 2015).

Both of these infections occur when salmonids are in water warmer than their normal and usual temperature range.

We know that these fish have been in the Deschutes River for weeks to a couple of months.  These fish enter the lower Deschutes River primarily in April and May.  So this is not an effect of exposure to the Columbia River that is crippling and killing these fish.  Conditions in the lower Deschutes River are contributing to the death of these fish.

Photo by Damien Nurre.

Photo by Damien Nurre.

River Conditions

Water temperatures in the lower river in the past few weeks have exceeded 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and been as high as 75 degrees at the Moody gauge on some days.   According to Rod French, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologist from The Dalles Office, in an interview in 2010 (, July 22, 2010), “It’s not healthy for fish to be in 70-degree water for long periods of time.”

No one can control the weather conditions that have led to warm water in the lower Deschutes.  But the operators of the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex can control the temperature of the water leaving the dams thanks to the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower at Round Butte Dam.  By mixing warm surface water with cold bottom draw water they have an ability to adjust temperature from a low-end of near 50 degrees (the temperature of water near the bottom in Lake Billy Chinook) to over 70 degrees (surface water temperature in Lake Billy Chinook), or to temperatures anywhere between.  During the time of warm water conditions leading up to the two fish kills, the dam operators were discharging water as warm as 60.5 degrees.  When air temperatures are in the nineties, the water doesn’t have to travel far to hit the 70-degree temperature Rod French defined as unhealthy for fish.

This makes the situation in the Deschutes very different from the other rivers in Oregon where fish kills are taking place.  On the lower Deschutes, there is the ability to cool the river using water at depth in Lake Billy Chinook.

Fortunately, the weather has cooled.  River temperatures are dropping from crisis levels.  The dam operators have reduced the temperature of water leaving the dams.  But warm to hot weather will be returning soon.  Another warming trend is forecasted for the end of the week July 13. 

Photo by Andrew Dutterer.

Photo by Andrew Dutterer.

What To Do

The obvious answer is to discharge cooler water from the PRB Dam Complex.  Portland General Electric claims that they can’t do that because their operating license won’t allow them to cool the river.  But the fact is that they have done it (July 19, 2014).

There is language in their license allowing, and even mandating, “adaptive management.” (Water Quality Management and Monitoring Plan, Exhibit A, September 2002).

We believe it’s time to adapt to weather and climate conditions and save fish.

We also note that language in the operating license for the dam complex calls for changes in operations when fish or wildlife are threatened by dam operations.  According to the license (Article 405, Order Approving Settlement and Issuing New License, Project No. 2030-036, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, June 21, 2005.):

If at any time, unanticipated circumstances or emergency situations arise in which non-ESA listed fish or wildlife are being killed, harmed or endangered by any of the project facilities or as a result of project operation, the licensees shall immediately take appropriate action to prevent further loss in a manner that does not pose a risk to human life, limb, or property.

Similar language also applies to species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

What You Can Do

Contact Portland General Electric’s Portland offices.  Let them know that the lower Deschutes River and its fish are important.  Let them know we need cooler temperatures in the river when the weather returns to being hot in another week.

Or call them at:

Community Affairs: 503-464-8599

Corporate Communications: 503-464-8949

Special Thanks

A great deal of work went into preparing this blog post.  Members of the DRA who contributed to this blog include: Steve Pribyl, Andrew Dutterer, Rick Hafele, John and Amy Hazel, Damien Nurre, Cam Groner, and Rick Trout.  I am indebted to them.

Greg McMillan

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

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The DRA and the Hatchery vs. Wild Fish Debate


Clean water is essential to protect the food chain.  Photo by David Moskowitz

The DRA’s position in this debate can be easily summarized.

Quite simply, it’s not the issue we are concerned about right now.

We are trying to protect the lower Deschutes River for all fish:  wild and hatchery spring Chinook, fall Chinook, the resident native red band trout, lamprey, sculpins, and yes, wild and hatchery steelhead.   All of these fish depend on the food chain that starts with aquatic plant life in the lower Deschutes, and that plant life supports the aquatic macroinvertebrates that fish feed on.  Aquatic vegetation and aquatic insects are dependent upon good water quality to support the web of life in the lower river.

March Brown mayfly by David Moskowitz

March Brown mayfly by David Moskowitz

We created the DRA to understand and protect that food chain, and the water quality it depends upon.

Some from outside of our organization have the perception that we are only affiliated with organizations that promote and protect wild fish.  The DRA is not a part of any other organization; we are an independent conservation organization.  Like with all conservation groups, the DRA has members and advisers that belong to other groups.  We did not discriminate against anyone because of their affiliations, nor shall we.  Rather we accepted their voluntary membership based on their desire to protect the lower Deschutes and the expertise that they brought with them.  We have a highly qualified and experienced panel of science advisors, and we have a Board of Directors that is uniquely qualified to lead our organization.  It is those qualifications that led to membership in our organization, not organizational affiliations.

Anyone who has spent time on the lower Deschutes River in the past three years knows that there are major changes happening.  Aquatic insect hatch timing has changed, some hatches have for all practical purposes disappeared, and then there is the recent proliferation of potentially harmful algae.

Excessive algae growth -Summer 2013

Excessive algae growth -Summer 2013 – Photo by Greg McMillan

These are the problems we are focused on, and it is those problems we aim to solve.  Please look for our 2014 Science Plan to see what our focus is.  We are doing this for the benefit of all Deschutes River fish and the benefit of all anglers.


Greg McMillan

President of the DRA Board of Directors

The DRA and Fiscal Responsibility


Photo by David Moskowitz

The DRA entered into active fundraising almost six weeks ago.  So a question that I believe any donor would want to ask is, “Where is my contribution going and how will it be spent?”

It’s a very fair and valid question and our donors should know the answer though many of you have already given generously based on your love of the Deschutes and your trust in members of our Board of Directors.

The short answer is that your contributions are primarily going to pay for the scientific investigation plan we have planned for this spring.  The cost will be fairly high, although we are looking for ways to minimize costs.  We estimate the aerial imaging described in the plan could cost as much as $90,000.00.  The instruments we need in order to do continuous water quality monitoring are expensive and we are looking at possibly renting instruments (also not cheap!).  But we are actively seeking grant money to offset expenses.  We are also trying to borrow or cost-share equipment and services.  So we’ll do our best to keep expenses as low as possible without compromising the integrity of the scientific data collection.

We also need funds to pay for our first staff position.  Dave Moskowitz has been kind enough to work for the past six months without pay, or even expense reimbursement.  Without that kind of volunteer effort, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

What we won’t be paying for is office space.  We’ve decided we’d much rather put money into the river than into offices, office furniture, office equipment and utilities like water and electricity.  As you’ve noticed from our fundraising effort, we’ve elected to not use the traditional brochure sent via mail.  This in part is to save costs so that your contributions go to protecting the river.  In other words, we are looking at every means possible to run a very tight fiscal ship.

Lower Deschute-1-4

Room with a view…Photo by Robert Sheley

Please rest assured that our goal is to see to it that every dollar donated to the DRA will be spent wisely and for the work you want to support.

Thank you for your support!

Greg McMillan,

Board President