Lawsuit Update: DRA Asks Court to Find PGE Liable for Clean Water Act Violations

Photo by Rick Hafele

On Monday night, March 5, the Deschutes River Alliance filed a motion in Federal District Court, asking Judge Michael Simon to find Portland General Electric liable for its violations of the Clean Water Act at the Pelton Round Butte Hydroelectric Project. In this “Motion for Summary Judgment,” the DRA outlines well over 1,000 instances over the past several years in which PGE has failed to comply with water quality requirements for temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen at the Project.

This motion is the latest step in the DRA’s fight to enforce the Clean Water Act and restore the Deschutes River. The document is now in the public record, but we link to it here for your convenience. In it, DRA argues that the relevant water quality requirements, and PGE’s own monitoring data, make clear that PGE is regularly violating the terms of the Project’s Water Quality Certification.

Background

The DRA brought this Clean Water Act “citizen suit” against PGE in August 2016. PGE is required to operate the Pelton Round Butte Project pursuant to a Clean Water Act certification, which identifies several water quality requirements—all agreed to as part of the Project’s licensing process—related to water discharged from the Project. These requirements are there to ensure that Project operations comply with all relevant Oregon water quality standards and, in turn, to protect aquatic life in the lower Deschutes River. However, since SWW operations began, PGE’s own monitoring reports demonstrate hundreds of days where the Project is not meeting these requirements.

In Fall 2016, PGE filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that citizen groups like the DRA do not have the authority under the Clean Water Act to bring a lawsuit like this one. In an important victory for advocates of clean water, DRA prevailed on that issue, allowing the case to move forward. Now, for the first time, the merits of the case have been presented to the Court.

Schedule Moving Forward

DRA’s motion will be followed by three months of briefing from both parties, culminating in a courtroom appearance for oral arguments on July 17. If the issues in this motion are not fully resolved after that appearance, a full trial will follow in early December.

Since this case was initially filed, we have completed nearly two years of research, analysis, and organizing—and won an important battle along the way protecting citizens’ rights to enforce the Clean Water Act. Now, we are thrilled to be moving forward to address the merits of this important case. The DRA believes that compliance with all water quality standards at the Pelton Round Butte Project is an essential first step to restoring this invaluable river, and we are eager for the fight ahead to ensure these standards are met.

As always, this fight would not be possible without your incredible support. To all the individuals, businesses, fellow NGOs, and foundations that have gotten us to this point: Thank you! Keep an eye on the DRA blog for updates on this case as they develop.

Below, watch the DRA’s newest video: A River Worth Fighting For.


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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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pH Violations in the Lower Deschutes River: Why it’s Happening, and Why it Matters

Round Butte Dam and the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower.

There’s been a great deal of focus on how Selective Water Withdrawal (SWW) operations at Pelton Round Butte have impacted temperatures in the lower Deschutes River. It’s hard not to focus on temperature: it’s something we can easily sense and monitor, and increased spring and summer temperatures have led to some alarming changes in the lower river these last few years.

But to understand the full extent of the ecological changes occurring in the lower river, there’s another criteria that’s perhaps even more important: hydrogen ion concentration, better known as pH. pH levels in the lower Deschutes River have increased dramatically since SWW operations began, and discharges from the Pelton Round Butte complex have routinely violated Oregon’s pH standard. Why is this happening, and how are these increased pH levels impacting the lower Deschutes River?

What is pH?

pH is a numeric scale used to indicate the acidity or basicity of a water-based solution. Pure water is neutral, with a pH of 7 standard units (SU). Solutions with a pH above 7 SU are basic (alkaline), and solutions with a pH below 7 SU are acidic. pH is measured on a logarithmic scale, meaning that a pH of 9 is ten times more alkaline than a pH of 8.

In freshwater systems like the Deschutes River, high pH levels are often the result of increased photosynthetic activity. This is because photosynthesis lowers the dissolved CO2 concentration in the water, which in turn reduces the carbonic acid concentration, which raises pH. As a result, high pH levels are a useful indicator of excessive algal growth and nutrient enrichment in freshwater systems.

Post-SWW Violations of Oregon’s pH Standard

Oregon’s water quality standard for pH in the Deschutes Basin is a minimum of 6.5 and maximum of 8.5 SU. This standard is designed to protect aquatic life from the harmful effects of water that is too acidic or too alkaline. While a pH above 8.5 is not lethal to aquatic life, it does not provide adequate protection; pH levels above 9.0 have been found to cause stress responses in rainbow trout, including sluggish movement, reduced feeding, and ammonia intoxication. High pH also indicates excessive algal growth in the river. The water quality certification for the Pelton Round Butte Complex mandates that discharges from the Project fall within this 6.5-8.5 range, to ensure that Project discharges comply with Oregon’s pH standard and that aquatic life in the lower river is adequately protected.

Since SWW operations began, Project discharges have routinely exceeded the 8.5 maximum standard. In 2016 alone, PGE’s own data show 140 days that pH levels rose above 8.5 at the Reregulating Dam tailrace.

While these numbers are alarming, downstream the problem appears to be even worse. In 2016, the DRA operated a data sonde one mile below the Reregulating Dam, collecting hourly readings for several water quality parameters, including pH, from February through November. Data collected at this site are summarized and analyzed in the DRA’s 2016 Lower Deschutes River Water Quality Report.

The pH data collected at this downstream sampling site are truly concerning. Of the 279 days sampled, 234 days had some pH measurements that exceeded the upper pH standard of 8.5. 120 of these days had pH measurements recorded above 9.0, and pH levels did not drop below 8.5 throughout April, May, and June. pH rose above 9.5 (remember, 10 times more alkaline than a pH of 8.5, and a hundred more times alkaline than a pH of 7.5) on two occasions: July 12 and October 14.

It makes sense that pH levels one mile downstream would be even higher than those in the Reregulating Dam tailrace. Increased algal growth in the river below the Project is increasing the amount of photosynthesis occurring in the river—this increased photosynthesis, in turn, continues to drive up pH levels downstream.

What do These Violations Mean, and Why are They Happening?

These newly elevated pH levels in the lower Deschutes River raise two important questions. First, what do these highly alkaline levels mean for the ecology of the lower river? As indicated above, in freshwater systems high pH levels are a strong indicator of excessive algal growth caused by nutrient enrichment. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen (or slipped on) the now-omnipresent nuisance algae blanketing the lower river’s rocks for much of the year. And such a high level of sustained pH poses definite stress and health risks to aquatic life including salmon, steelhead, and resident native trout.

Algae on rocks, one mile below the Pelton Reregulating Dam.

The next question that must be asked is: why is this happening? What is responsible for these elevated levels of pH? The only realistic answer appears to be the commencement of SWW operations.

Before SWW operations began in December 2009, discharges from the Pelton Round Butte Project did exceed Oregon’s pH standard from time to time. But these exceedances were relatively rare: PGE and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, in their 2001 application for the Project’s water quality certification, identified only one instance between 1994 and 1999 where pH below the Reregulating Dam exceeded 8.5. In 2007-2009, the three years immediately before SWW operations began, PGE’s water quality reports show far fewer violations of the 8.5 standard.

Further, Oregon DEQ data collected at the Warm Springs Bridge from 2005-2015 show an immediate and sustained increase in exceedances of the 8.5 standard upon commencement of SWW operations.

Clearly, surface water releases through the SWW tower have had a significant impact on pH levels in the lower Deschutes River. This surface water originates in the Crooked River, the warmest of the three tributaries that enter Lake Billy Chinook, and the tributary with the highest nutrient concentration. As a result, more surface water release means more nutrients are transferred to the lower Deschutes River. This in turn has triggered a significant increase in the growth of periphyton algae in the lower river, which has increased photosynthesis, and pH levels along with it.

The encouraging news about these harmful pH levels is that the solution is right in front of us. To lower pH to levels that are again safe for the river’s aquatic life, the Project operators can significantly increase the percentage of water drawn from the bottom of Lake Billy Chinook. Doing so would slow the Project’s nutrient transfer to the lower river; this would be beneficial not only for pH, but also for the health and diversity of the lower river’s aquatic insect populations and the fish and wildlife that depend on them.

The Pelton Round Butte Project’s current pH violations are at the root of our Clean Water Act lawsuit against Portland General Electric. We’ll be working diligently this year to ensure that these violations—and their resulting ecological impacts—are addressed.

Sources

Wagner, E.J., T. Bosakowski & S. Intelmann (1997). Combined Effects of Temperature and High pH on Mortality and the Stress Response of Rainbow Trout after Stocking. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society. 126:985-998.


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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.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­


 

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.

 


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Lawsuit Update: DRA Secures Important Victory For Clean Water Advocates

Photo by Brian O’Keefe.

For months, the DRA has been working to defend citizens’ authority to enforce water quality requirements at hydroelectric projects. This past Monday, August 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit appeared to put this critical question to rest by siding with the DRA and refusing to hear a PGE appeal on the issue. This decision will allow DRA’s critical Clean Water Act lawsuit to proceed, and is an important victory for clean water advocates across the country.

A full recap of the lawsuit to this point can be found here. In short, PGE has sought to persuade the federal district and appellate courts to dismiss the DRA’s lawsuit, arguing that citizen groups like the DRA have no authority under the Clean Water Act to enforce water quality requirements at hydroelectric projects. This spring, Judge Michael Simon, of the District of Oregon federal court, roundly dismissed these arguments, affirming that the Clean Water Act “citizen suit” provision clearly authorizes lawsuits like the DRA’s. PGE then petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to hear an appeal of that ruling.

On August 14, after reviewing the parties’ briefing, a Ninth Circuit panel of judges denied PGE’s request for permission to appeal. This decision will leave Judge Simon’s important ruling undisturbed and allow DRA’s lawsuit to move forward.

Round Butte Dam and the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision has great significance for water quality in the lower Deschutes River, and for other rivers across the country that are severely impacted by hydroelectric projects. DRA has been working diligently for many months to protect citizens’ essential enforcement authority, and will continue to do so if necessary. And now, we are eager to present the merits of our case to Judge Simon.

DRA’s Clean Water Act lawsuit is a critical part of our efforts to restore clean, cold water and a healthy aquatic ecosystem to the lower Deschutes River. Keep an eye on the DRA blog for more updates as they develop in this important case.


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Black Spot Disease in the Lower Deschutes

For anyone who has fished the lower Deschutes River this year, it is not news that many of the fish being caught have Black Spot Disease (BSD). How many fish? We’ve received reports of as many as 100% of 30 fish caught over a three-day trip between Trout Creek and Harpham Flat. Most reports are that 60 to 80% of landed trout have obvious evidence of BSD.

Lower Deschutes River bull trout showing obvious Black Spot Disease. Photo courtesy of Nick Wheeler.

We, along with several of our supporters, have contacted representatives of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife about this issue, and have been told there is nothing to be alarmed about. One of our supporters received an email from ODFW that included the following:

“ODFW has done some research on the effects of blackspot [sic] on spring chinook [sic] smolts in the John Day River and found that the parasite had no adverse effects on condition or survival, even fish that were severely infected performed the same as uninfected fish. Our pathologists also have stated that blackspot [sic] is not categorized as a disease, meaning that it does not appear to effect the host. It is also important to note that blackspot [sic] is very cyclical, and most often comes and goes through time.”

We’ve not seen any research reports from ODFW regarding BSD, although it’s not unusual for these reports to not be advertised or be made readily available. What is unusual is that anglers who fish the bodies of water mentioned by ODFW do not report seeing BSD. This is not to say that BSD isn’t present on the John Day and other rivers, but it’s clearly not present right now to the same extent as in the lower Deschutes.

According to the statement from ODFW, BSD “is not categorized as a disease.” This is a curious claim. Why is it called Black Spot Disease? In all of the scientific literature that we searched, it is always referred to as a disease. This is because infection with BSD results in both systemic inflammation and tissue changes in fish. Inflammation is evidenced by increased cortisol (a hormone associated with stress and inflammation) levels. The skin and scale changes seen on fish with BSD are not caused by trauma. So we have a transmissible infective organism causing inflammation and tissue changes. That meets the definition of a disease.

The fish ODFW representatives have observed with BSD are noted to be in good condition. Yes they are, when they are caught. But no one is performing long-term observation to see what the consequences of chronic infection might be. We are now in the third year of BSD being observed in lower Deschutes River fish, so it’s obvious that more fish are being infected for longer periods of time. None of the studies on BSD to date look at longer-term infections, so those consequences are unknown.

What is known is that fish do die of BSD. According to reports, once fish are infected in the eyes or mouth, survival is limited. And fish with high parasite loads tend to be of lower weight.

The ventral surface of a redband trout with Black Spot disease, caught in the lower Deschutes River in late April 2017. Photo by Jamey Mitchell.

Black spot disease is caused by a flatworm (trematode) parasite known in the scientific community as Uvulifer ambloplitis, and also known as “neascus.” This parasite has a complicated life cycle that starts with eggs in water, which hatch and become juveniles known as miracidia, which in turn infect aquatic snails.  In snails this form of the parasite matures into the next life form, known as cercariae.  Cercariae are shed by the snails and become free swimmers, which attach to fish.  Once the cercariae have attached to the flesh of a fish, the fish develops an immune response that causes the dark spot.

Fish-eating birds are the next host, which become infected when they ingest infected fish.  The cercariae develop into adult flatworms, which means that fish-eating birds are internally infected with the parasite.  The parasite then produces eggs, which are shed in feces by fish-eating birds, and deposited in water where the life cycle is reinitiated.

This summer, many have observed decreases in fish-eating birds in the lowest forty miles of the Deschutes. Kingfishers are rarely seen now in that reach of river (they were previously seen in pairs occupying nearly every reach of river), and merganser populations in the lower forty miles have declined. Are these birds becoming infected with neascus and dying? Or is something else going on? Unfortunately, no one seems to be investigating this phenomenon.

Increases in BSD are associated with increased water temperature and increased aquatic snail populations—both conditions that Selective Water Withdrawal Tower operations have created in the lower Deschutes River. Further, research has demonstrated that rather than being “cyclic,” BSD is linked to sustained elevated water temperatures and algae growth.

The likely solution to reducing BSD is a return to cooler water temperatures and less nutrient loading in the lower Deschutes River. This would require that the SWW tower draw more water from the bottom of Lake Billy Chinook before discharging downstream.

Sources

Schaaf, Cody J, Suzanne J. Kelson, Sébastien C. Nussle, & Stephanie Carlson . Black spot infection in juvenile steelhead trout increases with stream temperature in northern California. Environmental Biology of Fish,; April, 2017.

McAllister, CT, R. Tumlison, H.W. Robison, and S.E. Trauth. An Initial Survey on Black-Spot Disease (Digenea: Strigeoidea: Diplostomidae) in Select Arkansas Fishes. Journal of the Arkansas Academy of Science, Vol. 67, 2013

Schaaf, Cody J. Environmental Factors in Trematode Parasite Dynamics: Water Temperature, Snail Density and Black Spot Disease Parasitism in California Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss). Submitted to University of California Berkley for Masters Thesis, May, 2015.


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Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Establishes No-Limit Bass Fishery on the Lower Deschutes River

On Friday, August 4, 2017, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to make the bass fishery in the lower Deschutes River a “no bag limit” fishery, beginning January 1, 2018.

A smallmouth bass caught last week on the lower Deschutes River.

This is a positive step toward dealing with the bass invasion of the past few years. It is also an acknowledgement that we have a problem in the lower Deschutes River. As we’ve noted in previous blogs, bass have been infrequently reported in the lower Deschutes River, in very small numbers, for many years. However, in the past two years the numbers of reported bass have grown significantly, with some anglers this year reporting catches of up to 20 bass per day below Macks Canyon.

These omnivorous and voracious predators feed on a mix of food types including juvenile fish (trout, steelhead, Chinook, shiners, etc.), crawdads, and aquatic insects. As their numbers increase, they pose an increasing threat to the ecology of the lower river.

Unlike in other fisheries where bass have been artificially introduced by well intended, but ill-advised, amateur biologists, the bass in the lower Deschutes River appear instead to have moved up from the Columbia River. This has happened because, remarkably, the lower Deschutes River is now warmer in the spring than the Columbia River. This is due to current selective water withdrawal operations at the tower above Round Butte Dam. During springtime, 100% surface water withdrawal is used to attract juvenile fish to the fish collection facility at Round Butte Dam. This surface water is many degrees warmer than water at the bottom of the reservoir, which was the source of water for dam operations prior to 2010.

The warmer water in the lower Deschutes River attracts bass and allows them to become more active earlier in the year. This gives them more time to feed before the next winter, and an earlier start on spawning.

DRA Board member Steve Pribyl with a smallmouth bass caught last summer.

Perhaps the saddest comment on the new bag limit is that most anglers are releasing the bass they catch in the lower Deschutes, in order to have something to catch in the future as this treasured river continues to change so rapidly. However, we would encourage all anglers to remove these fish from the water. Do not dispose of them on the bank, as that is a violation of rules regarding wasting of game fish.

The need for this change in fisheries management is another unanticipated and unintended consequence of SWW tower operations. And another sign that it’s time to reconsider how the tower is operated, along with current strategies for reintroducing fish above the Pelton-Round Butte Project.


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

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