The Problem With the Water Quality Data in the PGE Lower Deschutes River Report by R2 Consultants

Pic 1 R2 Report

The above report (published in March of this year), as noted in prior DRA blog posts, was of a two-year study of the lower Deschutes River. The purpose of the report was to determine the magnitude of biological changes in the river due to the implementation of surface water withdrawal at Round Butte Dam. A baseline study was conducted in 1999-2001, which Portland General Electric (PGE) summarized in a report published in 2002.

Both studies were contracted and paid for by PGE and were a requirement of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license to operate the Pelton-Round Butte dams.

The water quality data from the most recent study can be found on pages 47 and 48 of the 2014-2015 report. The results document violations of the basin and statewide water quality standards in both years of the study. The most egregious violations were of the pH standard as established in Oregon Administrative Rules (OARs) 340-041-0021 and 340-041-0135. The Deschutes Basin Standard for pH is a maximum pH of 8.5. A pH of 7.0 is neutral (neither acid nor alkaline, greater than 7 is alkaline).

The authors attempt to diminish these violations by noting on page 46 of the report that, “Regarding the unusually high pH measurements taken in Spring 2015, since these are uniformly high, even in the reference sites, it is highly likely that the meter we used was off in its calibration. Therefore, any in situ measurements taken should be considered preliminary at best, and compared to official measurements taken by PGE or agencies.”

There are many problems with this statement.

R2 Resource Consultants are self-proclaimed experts in water quality monitoring and modeling, so one has to wonder how and why they would be unable to produce accurate water quality data? Why would they have calibration problems? If their equipment wasn’t functioning properly, why wouldn’t they use backup pH measuring equipment? If they didn’t have backup equipment, why couldn’t they borrow equipment or have it shipped in via overnight express? The pH measurement problems they most specifically refer to occurred over several days in April of 2015. That should have been enough time to correct any equipment problems.

There were also very high pH measurements in the three days of sampling in April/May of 2014 (10 out of 12 lower Deschutes River sites were above the 8.5 pH water quality standard). Were their instruments faulty then too?

Or is this an attempt to discard and disregard data that are indicative of water quality problems?

There is another potential reason that the high pH values were recorded during spring sampling in both years. When algae bloom, it increases pH. It does this by absorbing CO2 from water to conduct photosynthesis. The by-products of photosynthesis are sugar and oxygen. Notably, the dissolved oxygen levels on the dates of the high pH levels were also high, with dissolved oxygen saturation levels reaching up to 138%. This occurs when there is excessive algal growth.

We have noted extensive algae growth in the lower river this year, starting in February. We have also recorded pH levels of greater than 9 in April and May 2016.

Algae, early March 2016. One mile below Pelton-Round Butte Reregulating Dam.

Algae, early March 2016. One mile below Pelton-Round Butte Reregulating Dam.

Algae, late March 2016. One mile below Pelton-Round Butte Reregulating Dam.

Algae, late March 2016. One mile below Pelton-Round Butte Reregulating Dam.

We are troubled by the lack of explanation for R2’s “calibration problem(s).” It is standard procedure to have a quality control plan that includes details for meter calibration and procedures if they fail calibration. At the DRA, we maintain a log for each instrument we own. Recorded in each of these logs are the calibration dates, times and results. All instruments are calibrated before each day of water quality sampling. We carry backup equipment.

In the case of our in-river dwelling data instrument, once a month we perform “field audits” where we cross check the data it produces with independent meters and manual techniques. We cross check the performance of our meters.

We have such a stringent quality control program because two of our field staff worked for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) for decades, doing water quality work. We exercise the same quality control methodology that ODEQ uses. We would suggest that PGE require the same of contractors doing water quality work.

DRA water quality staff at work:

Larry Marxer measuring dissolved oxygen in river water, using the Winkler method.

Larry Marxer measuring dissolved oxygen in river water, using the Winkler method.

Rick Hafele doing water quality measurements on Lake Billy Chinook.

Rick Hafele doing water quality measurements on Lake Billy Chinook.

Greg McMillan going old school on water quality measurements in 1979 (when old school was just school, or maybe pre-school).

Greg McMillan going old school on water quality measurements in 1979 (when old school was just school, or maybe pre-school).

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We Did It! A Report from Greg McMillan

John Hazel watches Larry Marxer measure dissolved oxygen the old-school way.

It was an unfathomable task.  Five sites on 100 miles of river to monitor for 72 hours, continuously, using a variety of complex equipment.  We were challenged by wildfire, river closures, air space closures and severe weather.  Yet our volunteers accomplished the task.

WQ Experts

Steve Pribyl, Jeremiah Bawden, Rick Hafele and Kurt Carpenter

What did we do?  We conducted an extensive water quality monitoring initiative that examined fluctuating temperature, conductivity, turbidity, pH, dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll levels.  This was conducted to look at the magnitude of algae activity in the lowest 100 miles of the Deschutes River.  We monitored conditions from sites at Mecca Flat, Davidson Flat, Oasis Recreation Site, Macks Canyon and Wagonblast.

The Nymph

It’s too early to know what the data will show.  We are still in the process of downloading data from instruments.  Those data, and the data collected via manual instruments, will then undergo statistical analysis.  We’ll be combining those data with the results of the aerial infrared thermal imaging that was completed on July 26.  We’ll look at what species of algae were present during this monitoring period (many samples were collected by Kurt Carpenter from the U.S. Geological Survey Oregon Water Science Center).  

Data Sonde

Tools of the trade – the YSI Data Sonde

Finally, thanks to Quantum Spatial, additional aerial imaging and mapping of the algae growth will take place in early September.  These combined efforts will give us a very good picture of the distribution of the nuisance algae that has appeared in the lower river in the past few years, and the impact it has on water chemistry, and by extension, river ecology.  It will also give powerful clues, or clearly point, to the source(s) of the nutrients and the algae itself.

The process

We measured Dissolved Oxygen (DO) by hand to complement the electronic monitoring devices.

 A special and heartfelt thanks goes out to our volunteers who gave not only of their time, but were willing to be trained on the use of water quality monitoring equipment, and endured some frankly challenging conditions at times.  The volunteers were:

Jeremiah Bawden

Kurt Carpenter

Robert Casey

Joe Combee

Rick Hafele

Bonnie Lamb

Jeff Mann

Larry Marxer

Greg McMillan

Dave Moskowitz

Kate Puddy

Larry Whitney


We also owe a special thanks to the Imperial River Company in Maupin, Oregon for allowing us conduct training and organize operations out of their facility, and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality for the use of water quality monitoring equipment.


Thanks also go out to our donors and other supporters.  Without your help, none of this very important work would be possible.


Greg McMillan


Director, Science and Conservation

Deschutes River Alliance

A Brief Update for Our Donors and Supporters from Greg McMillan

First, allow us to say how grateful we are for the support you’ve shown us, and the lower Deschutes River.


Photo by David Moskowitz

Second, we are very busy at the Deschutes River Alliance as we are about to deploy our science initiative.  We’ve just signed a contract to accomplish the aerial thermal and hyper-spectral imaging on the lower river.  The information from this effort will detect thermal influences, locate possible nutrient sources, and map the distribution of the invasive algae.

NASA Photo

NASA Photo

Third, we are in the process of picking up the instruments to do our in-river water quality monitoring at the peak of the algae bloom.  We will have five stations from the mouth up to the Pelton Reregulating Dam that will be gather the most comprehensive water quality data in the lower Deschutes River.

Pine Envi

Fourth, our aquatic insect hatch survey is well underway and we are accruing much more data than in 2013.

Photo by Greg McMillan

Photo by Greg McMillan

Lastly, we’ve assisted Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in their redband trout growth study by conducting the analysis of redband trout stomach contents.

Photo by Greg McMillan

Photo by Greg McMillan

None of this work would be possible without your support.  And this fall, we’ll be ready to share the results of all of our work with you.  Again, thank you for making this possible.

Sincerely and gratefully yours,

 Greg McMillan

Board President

Director of Science and Conservation

Welcome to the Deschutes River Alliance Blog

Lower Deschute-1

The Lower Deschutes River -Photo Robert Sheley

Throughout 2011 and 2012 we had many discussions with friends who fish the lower Deschutes often. Often enough to know when something had changed. Some of those friends are guides and outfitters who are on the river almost daily from early May until November. We all shared the same observations and concerns. There were things that just were not the same on the river. Insect hatches were sparse where and when they were once robust. Turbidity had suddenly become an issue. The arrival of steelhead had been delayed. There was a new and different algae covering the rocks in riffles. Bats and swallows were less common place. Why were these things happening and what did they mean? No one seemed to know.

So in January of 2013, with the cooperation of many of those friends (who included the likes of Steve Light, John Hazel, John Smeraglio, John Judy, Damien Nurre, Forrest Foxworthy, Brian Silvey, Steve Pribyl, John Belozer and Rick Hafele) we decided to organize some meetings and bring in some authorities whom we hoped could provide explanations. Originally we called ourselves the Lower Deschutes River Coalition. The more we dug, the more we realized we were treading into unknown territory. The changes we had seen had not been observed by agencies or other river managers. We realized our coalition had to become the forum and process for understanding these changes. In the wake of ongoing reductions in funding over the past twenty years for state agencies, restrictions on the ability of the federal government to respond, we also knew we would have to take responsibility for ensuring that issues would be investigated and defined.

Now, today, the newly named Deschutes River Alliance (DRA) is embarking on a science based and collaborative in-depth look at the health of the lower Deschutes River. We want to better understand the biology, water quality and other issues that could impact the future of the river. Spring of 2014 will see the DRA embarking upon an aggressive research and study process that will help us understand the issues we face and need to solve.

This is the beginning. The DRA hopes the end will be the resolution of imminent threats to the river and a legacy to leave to future generations.

Greg McMillan

Greg McMillan