Announcing the DRA’s 2016 Lower Deschutes River Water Quality Report

We are thrilled to announce the publication of the DRA’s 2016 Lower Deschutes River Water Quality Report. This report—along with three other reports we’ll be releasing over the next two months—is the culmination of the DRA’s most detailed investigation yet of the causes and extent of the ecological changes occurring in the lower Deschutes River.

An important aspect of the report analyzes hourly water quality data collected at River Mile 99, one mile below the Pelton Reregulating Dam, from February 18 through November 22, 2016. All data collected for pH, temperature, and dissolved oxygen are presented and analyzed, and compared against water quality requirements contained in the state-issued Clean Water Act § 401 Certification for the Pelton-Round Butte Complex, as well as Oregon’s water quality standards for the Deschutes Basin. Read the whole thing here.

This report represents the most complete public analysis yet of the impact of Selective Water Withdrawal operations on water quality below the Pelton-Round Butte Hydroelectric Complex. Key findings include:

  • Oregon’s water quality standard for pH in the Deschutes Basin (6.5-8.5 SU) was exceeded on 234 out of 279 days that data were collected (84%). 43% of the days sampled had pH measurements greater than 9.0.
  • Each year since 2011, Project operators have worked with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to purportedly weaken the water quality requirements in the Project’s Clean Water Act § 401 Certification. These changes include:
    • The defined spawning season for salmonids was changed from year-round to Oct. 15-June 15. This change allows the application of a lower dissolved oxygen standard during the non-spawning period (June 16-Oct. 14). However, this newly defined spawning period does not take into account the full season of resident trout spawning and egg incubation, as is required by the Oregon Administrative Rules. This has caused dissolved oxygen levels in the lower Deschutes River to fall below levels required to protect resident salmonids through egg incubation and fry emergence.
    • The water temperature that triggers the blending of cool bottom water from Lake Billy Chinook with warmer surface water has been markedly increased since the Selective Water Withdrawal tower began operations. This has allowed the release of 100% surface water into the lower Deschutes River to continue later into the summer.
  • Changes in pH and dissolved oxygen, documented by this study and ODEQ’s own data, clearly indicate that excess nutrients are being released into the lower Deschutes River from the surface waters of Lake Billy Chinook.

DRA’s 2016 Lower Deschutes River Water Quality Report clearly establishes that, in just seven years of operation, the Selective Water Withdrawal tower at Pelton-Round Butte has severely degraded water quality and threatens aquatic life below the Project. We believe this report will serve as an important document for all basin stakeholders in assessing the impact of tower operations on the river we all love.

A special thanks to all of our supporters, whose generosity and passion for the river has made all of our science work possible. We’d like to take this opportunity to specifically thank the various organizations and foundations who have provided funding to support this critical work, including:

  • The Oregon Wildlife Heritage Fund
  • Maybelle Clark MacDonald Fund
  • Flyfishers Club of Oregon/Flyfishers Foundation
  • Clark-Skamania Flyfishers
  • Mazamas
  • American Fly Fishing Trade Association
  • Tualatin Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited
  • Washington County Fly Fishers

Cooler, cleaner H2O for the Deschutes!

Photo by Brian O’Keefe



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

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Deschutes River Alliance 2016 Annual Donor Update

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Dear Members of the Deschutes River Alliance Community,

It is with great pleasure that we share with you our 2016 Annual Donor Update. As you will read in the update, 2016 has been a big year for the DRA. We’ve continued our important scientific work in the lower Deschutes River and Lake Billy Chinook, and are now using the data we’ve gathered to create detailed reports on the sources and extent of the changes we’ve all witnessed in the lower river. Further, this research has provided a strong foundation for our increased advocacy efforts on behalf of all who treasure a healthy Deschutes River. This includes our lawsuit to enforce water quality requirements at the the Pelton-Round Butte Hydroelectric Complex.

As always, none of this work would be happening without the support of our many donors: the individuals, corporations, foundations, and fellow environmental organizations that make it possible for the DRA to accomplish our mission. We’re sincerely grateful for all your support, and are excited to share our many accomplishments with you, along with our big plans for 2017 and beyond. With your support, we will restore cooler, cleaner water to the lower Deschutes River.

Click here to read about the incredible momentum we’ve gathered over the past year, and how we plan to keep it going in 2017.

And if you would like to make donation towards our programs in 2017, please click here.

Wishing you all the best this holiday season. Here’s to another great year in 2017!

Lower Deschutes River. Photo by Brian O'Keefe.

Lower Deschutes River. Photo by Brian O’Keefe.


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

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More On Portland General Electric’s Report on Periphyton (algae) and Aquatic Macroinvertebrates (The R2 Report)

Since the release of PGE’s report on their two-year study of algae and aquatic insects, we’ve received a lot of inquiries from our supporters.  So let us update everyone on where things are at related to our response to the report.

We’ve been able to get four Ph.D. experts in fields related to the ecology of rivers to agree to review the R2 report.   It will take us until early June to get the evaluations back from these individuals.  We think it will be worth the wait.  Please stay tuned.

We’ll also be writing up some of our own assessments of the study.  We have some resident experts of our own on the DRA’s Board of Directors.  You’ll be seeing some of their thoughts within the next couple of weeks.

Photo by Rick Hafele.

Photo by Rick Hafele.

Stonefly Hatch!

In the meantime, we’re headed into late April.  That means the stonefly hatch should be starting anytime.  Please send us your reports on the stonefly hatch to info@deschutesriveralliance.org.   Although our trained hatch observers will be on the river sending in reports, we’d like to hear from all of you.

Several times during recent presentations, PGE’s contractor from R2 Resource Consultants described the wealth of stoneflies he’d seen while doing kick-screening on the lower Deschutes River.  However, the actual R2 report says something else.  “Stoneflies were not numerically abundant, but were widely distributed and contributed substantially to the invertebrate biomass by virtue of the often large size.” (R2 Resource Consultants, Final Report, Lower Deschutes River Macroinvertebrate and Water Quality Study, Prepared for Portland General Electric, 2016, page 97.)

“Not numerically abundant” is more consistent with our observations based on kick-screening and observational adult insect hatch data over the past few years.

So help us out.  Given recent temperatures, the stonefly hatch should begin in a few days to a few weeks.  As Hafele and Hughes said in The Complete Book of Western Hatches, “It is a show that should not be missed.”  Although it seems to be a less dramatic show in the past few years.  We would like to hear about your experiences during the hatch.   Tell us when and where you see the big bugs, what sorts of numbers you see, and how the fish are responding.  Let us know by writing to us at info@deschutesriveralliance.org.  We’ll not disclose any secret fishing locations, nor divulge any other information until after the hatch is over.

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

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DRA Releases Reports

On March 4, we posted two new reports under the “Reports” tab on our website.

The first report is the analysis of our 2014 thermal imaging survey of the lower Deschutes River.

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This report is the analysis of the first known thermal imaging look at mid-summer temperature behavior in the lower river.  There were many unanticipated surprises from the imaging, but two findings are of greatest importance.

  • The thermal behavior of water discharged from the Pelton-Round Butte Complex during nighttime hours is unaffected by “canyon effect.” Canyon effect warms the water during the day as a product of solar radiation exposure.  Nighttime discharge, however, avoids much of the daytime warming effect.   Yet all temperature calculations used for temperature management by dam operations act as if water temperature and temperature behavior are the same day and night.  It has also been stated by the dam operators that “cooler temperature discharge from the dams wouldn’t make any difference” because of “canyon effect.”  Our findings contradict that.
  • Solar radiation (down-bound long wave radiation) is far more important than air temperature in determining river temperatures. Solar radiation warms both air and the water in the river.  That means that shade from canyon walls and riparian vegetation is important in maintaining cooler water in the river.  Air temperature in Redmond is also an important factor in determining the goal for temperature management for dam discharge, yet air temperature has little effect on water temperature.

The second report describes our data and findings from the 2015 water quality study we did in Lake Billy Chinook and in the lower river just below the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex. 

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The Selective Water Withdrawal Tower at Round Butte Dam (the uppermost dam of the three dam complex at Pelton-Round Butte) has intake portals in the top 30 feet of the reservoir, and at 265 feet of depth.  To better understand the water quality effects of Tower operations and selective water withdrawal, we sampled surface water and water at depth in front of the Tower, as well as in the river below the dams.

The data we gathered demonstrated many things, and also raised more questions that we will be attempting to answer through the water quality sampling we started in February of this year. Our results from 2015 shed light on a number of critical factors, including that:

  • Surface water withdrawn from Lake Billy Chinook, for much of the year, consists primarily of water from the Crooked River Arm of the reservoir.
  • Water from the Crooked River Arm is warmer, and of poor water quality (the Crooked River water quality above the reservoir is rated as “poor” by Oregon Department of Environmental Quality). Plus, the water in the Crooked River Arm supports the densest level of algae growth in the reservoir.  In contrast, water from the Metolius River, which, because of its colder temperature constitutes most of the water at the depth of 265’, is of high quality (based on ODEQ data, as well as our own data).

Questions we are hoping to answer in 2016 include (but are not limited to):

  • What is the “nutrient load” entering Lake Billy Chinook from the three tributaries, and when does it get discharged from the dam complex into the lower Deschutes River? Algae in the upper water of the reservoir actually help decrease nutrient levels during summertime growth, but nutrients in surface water discharged in late fall, early winter and spring are not likely attenuated by that algae, and probably contributes significantly to the growth of nuisance algae that has been documented in the lower river.  So we are now tracking nutrient levels at the surface and at depth in the reservoir and below the dams.
  • Is the surface water in the Crooked River Arm of Lake Billy Chinook too toxic for migratory juvenile fish survival during major algae blooms due to high pH, high temperature and/or other variables?
  • Is operation of the dam complex in compliance with the water quality requirements of the Pelton-Round Butte Section 401 Certification under the Clean Water Act and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license?

We would also like to announce that we are (finally!) getting some of our raw water quality data posted on our website.  We are open-sourcing the data for all to view or use.  It will take some time to get everything posted, but we will be working on this going forward.

We hope to post updates on our work throughout the year.  So please stay tuned.

Deep and heartfelt thanks to our donors and supporters for making this work possible!

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

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Deschutes River Alliance Reveals 2016 Science Plan

Our 2016 Science Plan is now posted to our website, under the Reports tab.

Our annual science plans have evolved over the course of the past two years.  The first year was directed at determining if the changes (alterations in aquatic insect populations and nuisance algae proliferation) we had been observing in the lower Deschutes River began directly below the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex and continued to the mouth, or if there was a source downstream from the dams causing these changes.  These efforts confirmed that alterations in aquatic insect populations and the nuisance algal blooms begin immediately below the dams.

Algae at Disney Riffle, 1 mile below the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Algae at Disney Riffle, 1 mile below the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex. Photo by Greg McMillan.

As a consequence, in 2015 we realized we needed to understand the quality of water released from the Selected Water Withdrawal Tower in the Lake Billy Chinook reservoir, which largely controls the water quality in the lower river.  To determine that, we began to conduct water quality sampling in Lake Billy Chinook.  We’ve been sampling both surface water and water at depth since the beginning of June 2015.

We’ve learned a few fundamental facts about Lake Billy Chinook:

  • The water at the bottom of Round Butte Dam forebay is roughly twenty degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler at depth than at the surface during the summer.
  • The pH at the surface in the forebay and Crooked River Arms approaches 10 (highest recorded pH was 9.9). We did a search of the scientific literature and determined that the maximal pH salmonids can tolerate for any prolonged period of time is 8.5.  The water at depth has a much more tolerable pH of 7 to 8.
  • We also learned the primary nutrient source (for both nitrogen- and phosphorous-based nutrients) in Lake Billy Chinook, is the Crooked River. The Middle Deschutes also makes a contribution to that nutrient load.  The Metolius is relatively low in nutrients, especially nitrogen-based nutrients.  These nutrients are what fuel algal blooms.

We have hypothesized that the massive algal blooms in Lake Billy Chinook have acted as a filter for nutrients.  The nutrients are consumed by the algae when they grow rapidly with exposure to warm temperatures and sunlight. The algae then die in late summer and fall.  As the reservoir cools in the fall, the previously warmer water at the surface cools and mixes with water at the bottom.  We believe that in the past this allowed the reservoir to sequester nutrients and prevent them from being discharged into the lower river at the rate they are today.

Our results this summer do indeed show a reduction in surface water nutrient levels as algae activity increases.  In the winter and spring, prior to the reservoir algae blooms, 100% surface water is being discharged into the lower river.  We believe that this is when the lower river likely becomes loaded with the nutrients that trigger the widespread nuisance algal growth we’ve all observed and slipped on!

This year we will begin sampling reservoir water at the surface and at depth in February.  This will allow us to determine if the nutrient cycling described above is indeed taking place.

We will also be continuing our aquatic insect sampling work at two locations below the dam complex, along with our aquatic insect hatch survey.

Lastly, we’ve been fortunate to be given funding for a high quality continuous water quality sampling and recording device that will be installed below the dam complex.  This will allow us to understand the hourly, daily, and seasonal changes in water quality discharged from the dam complex.

We wish to thank all of our supporters for making this work possible.  Without your continued contributions we would be unable to pursue answers to these critically important research questions.  Funding for our 2016 Science Plan is not yet complete.  We are grateful for any contributions you can provide to help us achieve these research goals.  Effective advocacy is founded on strong scientific research. Thank you!

Water quality monitoring on Lake Billy Chinook, 2015. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Water quality monitoring on Lake Billy Chinook, 2015. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Water quality monitoring equipment, Lake Billy Chinook, 2015. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Water quality monitoring equipment, Lake Billy Chinook, 2015. Photo by Greg McMillan.

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

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Cooler, Cleaner Water for the Lower Deschutes River

By Greg McMillan

On June 15, this is what the surface water on Lake Billy Chinook, immediately in front of the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower at Round Butte Dam, looked like:

Photo by Greg McMillan.

Photo by Greg McMillan.

Rick Hafele and I were doing water quality sampling.  Here’s Rick dropping our Van Dorn sampler down to 200 ft. of depth.  The fish collection facility and entrance to the SWW Tower can be seen in the background.

Photo by Greg McMillan.

Photo by Greg McMillan.

That green water resembling pond water was warm (67 degrees at 10:00 AM) and very alkaline (pH 9.6, yes 9.6!)* and could contain toxic algae.  The water at depth was cold (51 degrees) and clear with a pH of 7.0*.  The water that was historically drawn from the reservoir to drive turbines and then be discharged into the lower river was from the bottom.  The bottom where there is cooler, cleaner water.  Or H2O in chemistry speak.

It should also be noted that the U.S. Forest Service has as of June 10, issued a health warning regarding toxic blue-green algae being present in the Metolius arm of Lake Billy Chinook Reservoir.  Apparently due to a lack of resources and jurisdiction the U.S.F.S. is not investigating the possibility of toxic algae being present in other parts of the reservoir.

Now, much of the year that surface water that is algae laden comprises most of the water being discharged into the lower Deschutes.  This is ostensibly to guide juvenile hatchery fish planted in the reservoir tributaries to the collection facility at Round Butte Dam, where they are collected, tagged and transported by truck around the dams.

We’ve been documenting the problems that this surface water draw is creating in the lower river.  Just look at the surface water and what it contains!  No wonder the river has changed!  The dam operators deny there are problems.  We’ve not heard of one instance of acceptance of the problems that every astute angler who fishes the lower river has witnessed.  In the meantime, guides and outfitters, and regular anglers all know that in the past few weeks the hatches have died out.  That means few adult insects are mating.  It means that businesses dependent upon the lower river are feeling the impact.  We’ve heard from numerous outfitters and service providers that bookings are suddenly down on the lower river.  Way down.

Cooler, cleaner H2O.  Just what the lower river needs.  And it’s the Deschutes River Alliance’s new motto.  Cooler, cleaner H2O.   It’s what we all need.

*pH is a measure of acidity and alkalinity from 0 to 14.  Pure water has a pH of 7.0.  The water quality standards for the State of Oregon call for a maximum pH of 8.5.  At 9.5, water has the pH of baking soda and is approaching the pH of milk of magnesia.  In nearly all instances in humans, a blood pH of greater than 7.5 is fatal.

“What the river says, that is what I say.”

From the poem, “Ask Me” by William Stafford, Oregon Poet Laureate.

Why the DRA Science Plan?

In March of 2013 we began to hold meetings that were conducted like scientific forums.  We did that to be able to start to figure out why the changes we had observed in the lower Deschutes River were taking place.  It became clear that many of things we needed to know had not been studied.

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Invertebrate sampling on the Lower Deschutes – Photo by Greg McMillan

So we brought in some of the best experts we could find.  We had many of these experts make presentations at our meetings, and finally over the course of several months, after many discussions, a study plan emerged.  The study plan is constructed to be capable of detecting the changes in the lower river that have led to alterations in aquatic insect hatches and populations, as well the recent spread and growth of the golden brown algae we’ve all seen.

Excessive algae growth -Summer 2013

Excessive algae growth -Summer 2013 – Photo by Greg McMillan

The plan takes aim at two key parameters for river health, temperature and water chemistry.  Water temperatures have not been shown to be higher at their maximum, but they are warmer earlier in the year.  This might affect insect maturation and emergence, and it could help stimulate algae growth.  So understanding temperature and how it is distributed geographically and over time is important to understanding what is happening to our river.  Water chemistry is the cumulative product of many processes.  These include chemicals leaching into the water from the geology of the river and its tributaries, as well as runoff from man influenced sources such as sewage treatment plants, agricultural fields, and burn areas.

Salmon flies -spring 2013

Salmon flies -spring 2013 – Photo by Greg McMillan

The DRA Science Plan is designed to detect and determine each of the influences listed above.  It is far more complex than described above, but has to be in order to be scientifically credible.  Our goal is to produce a level of science that will stand up to scientific review at an academic level, as well as act as evidence in any administrative or legal process that is necessary to bring about management changes.

Please help us in executing the plan by donating to the DRA via this website.  Thank you!

Greg McMillan, Director of Science and Conservation

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