Read Steve Pribyl’s Letter to ODFW Regarding Redband Trout Health in the Lower Deschutes River

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.


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Lawsuit Update: Court Denies PGE’s Motion to Dismiss

Round Butte Dam and the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower.

Great news! On Monday morning, Judge Simon denied PGE’s motion to dismiss the DRA’s Clean Water Act lawsuit. In its motion, PGE had argued that the Clean Water Act does not authorize lawsuits by private citizens, including groups like the DRA, to enforce water quality requirements at hydro projects like Pelton-Round Butte. Judge Simon’s decision thoughtfully rejected each of PGE’s arguments on the issue, ultimately finding that the company’s interpretation of the Clean Water Act “rewrites the statute.” Read the whole decision here.

Judge Simon’s ruling, which allows the DRA’s lawsuit against PGE to proceed, is great news for lovers of the Deschutes River, and a critical step in our efforts to return cold, clean water to the lower Deschutes. But it’s also a great victory for river advocates across the country: a decision in PGE’s favor would have impacted the ability of citizens and states to protect water quality on all rivers impacted by hydroelectric projects.

This is truly an important decision for the Deschutes River, and we’re eager to finally move on and address the merits of the case. Judge Simon’s ruling ensures that the DRA will have the ability, as the Clean Water Act clearly provides, to hold PGE accountable for violations of water quality requirements at Pelton-Round Butte. This is the first step to restoring the river we all love.

Keep an eye on the blog for more updates on the lawsuit, and on all of the DRA’s science and advocacy efforts. Cooler, cleaner H2O for the Deschutes!

Redband trout, lower Deschutes River. Photo by Brian O’Keefe


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Recap and Photos from the DRA’s First Annual Gathering and Auction

Photo by Dave Moskowitz

Photo by Dave Moskowitz

We’ve fully recovered from the DRA’s first gathering and auction, which took place last Saturday, February 11, at the Ecotrust Building in Northwest Portland. We were blown away by the support we received at the event–the building was packed to capacity with DRA supporters, and it was a true honor to host so many old and new friends.

We drank fantastic beers from Freebridge Brewing and outstanding wines from Lange Estate Winery.  Attendees bid on an incredible selection of live auction items, with proceeds going directly to the DRA’s efforts to return cold, clean water to the lower Deschutes River. And we premiered our new documentary film, The Rapid Decline of the Lower Deschutes River, which led to a lot of great conversations about the issues facing the lower Deschutes and where we go from here. The film is now available online–check it out below:

Again, THANK YOU to all who attended the event, and helped make the afternoon so special. The support we’ve received from all of you over the last few months has been incredible–2017 is shaping up to be a huge year for the DRA and the lower Deschutes River. Check out a few more photos of the festivities:

Emcee John Hazel and Auctioneer Grant Putnam. Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Emcee John Hazel and Auctioneer Grant Putnam. Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Steve Light, of Freebridge Brewing. Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Steve Light, of Freebridge Brewing. Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Photo by Dave Moskowitz.

Finally, a very special thanks to all the supporters who donated auction items, time, and expertise to the event. We truly couldn’t have done it without these great folks:

Alex Gonsiewski | Brian Silvey | Brian Henninger | Chris O’Donnell | CF Burkheimer | Craig Sweitzer | Dave Hughes | Deschutes Angler Fly Shop | Dick and Kathy Bushnell | Dillon Renton and Renton River Adventures | Elke and Alysia Littleleaf | Freebridge Brewing | Grant Putnam and Benefit Auction Fundraising | Jeff and Kathryn Hickman and Fish the Swing | John Smeraglio and Deschutes Canyon Fly Shop | Jeff Perin and The Fly Fishers Place | Jerry Swanson and Fishhead Expeditions | Joel LaFollette and Royal Treatment Fly Shop | Lange Estate Winery | Mark Bachman and Patty Barnes of The Fly Fishing Shop | Marty Shepard and Little Creek Outfitters | Micheal McLean | Mike Kuhnert | Nick Rowell and Anadromous Anglers | Pat Becker | Rick Trout | Rick Hafele | Saracione Reels | Terry Vance | Travis Duddles and The Gorge Fly Shop | The Trout Shop on the Missouri | Troy Jones | Warner Munro


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Happy Holidays From the Deschutes River Alliance!

Photo by Brian O'Keefe.

Photo by Brian O’Keefe.

We would like to take this opportunity to wish all of you a warm and happy holidays and a fantastic new year. We’re especially thankful this holiday season for the continued support and engagement of all our donors and supporters. 2017 is shaping up to be an important and exciting year in our efforts to restore cooler, cleaner water to the Deschutes River, and we could not be successful without you. So here’s to all of you and to another great year!

Auction Registration Reminder and Item Preview

As a reminder, the DRA’s first-ever auction and social gathering will be taking place on Saturday afternoon, February 11, at the Ecotrust Building in Northwest Portland. Tickets are going VERY fast for this event, so be sure to register soon to reserve a seat for this great event with other DRA supporters.

The event will feature a live auction of 15 unique items assembled just for this event, with auctioneering duties performed by the DRA’s own flamboyant and entertaining John Hazel, co-owner of the Deschutes Angler Fly Shop.

Here’s an early snapshot of some of the auction items:

  • A day of insect identification and fly pattern selection with Rick Hafele and Mark Bachmann on the Salmon River near Welches. Rick literally wrote the book on western river insect identification, and Mark has been fishing the Salmon and matching the hatch for 50 years. The event will take place on river frontage at a private residence, and will include seining the river and a side channel, identifying the bugs and pattern matching, and a delicious barbecue lunch plus beer and wine. There are 12 available slots for the day, each of which will be auctioned off individually at $150 per spot.
  • Two guides and two boats for four anglers on various Oregon steelhead rivers. More details to come before the event.
  • Four anglers, two days on the Deschutes River during the stonefly hatch. Your fishing partners and “consultants” will be noted authors, speakers, and angling gurus Dave Hughes and Rick Hafele. Overnight stay in a prviate house at North Junction and a gourmet dinner. More details to come.
  • A small raffle of high quality fly fishing items will also be held.

This is just a small sample of the fantastic items that will be up for auction. Watch the DRA website and check your email for updates on other auction items!

Remember, seating is limited to 150 and is going very fast. So click here to register now!

Can’t attend but want to help? Click here to donate to support the DRA’s ongoing efforts.

deschutes-salmonfly-hatch-close-up-1a-okeefe-72-1200-copy


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Announcing the DRA’s First-Ever Gathering!

event-photo

The Deschutes River Alliance’s First-Ever Social and Fundraising Event      Saturday, February 11, 1 PM to 5 PM
The Ecotrust Building in Northwest Portland

Join other DRA supporters and lovers of the Deschutes River for an afternoon of fun, food, drink, and more on Saturday afternoon, February 11, 2017.

This is the DRA’s first-ever gathering–an opportunity to visit with friends and other concerned individuals who, like you, have stepped up to help restore the health of the lower Deschutes River.

Seating is limited to the first 150 to register, so act today!

Tickets are just $75 per person, with all proceeds going to the DRA’s efforts to restore the lower Deschutes River, including our efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act at the Pelton Round Butte Hydroelectric Project.

The February 11 afternoon event will feature:

  • A premiere of the DRA’s new documentary film, which highlights the issues facing the lower Deschutes and the DRA’s efforts to restore the river we all love.
  • A short live auction with 12-15 high quality items, including incredible fishing trips and unique fishing gear custom-made for the event.
  • Complimentary wine provided by Lange Winery, and beer provided by Freebridge Brewing of The Dalles and other Columbia Gorge breweries.
  • Delicious locally sourced appetizers.

Bring some friends. Have some fun while supporting the DRA and our important work advocating for the health of the Deschutes River.

Remember, seating is limited to 150. So click here to register now!

Can’t attend but want to help? Click here to support the DRA’s ongoing efforts.

deschutes-salmonfly-hatch-close-up-1a-okeefe-72-1200-copy


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Deschutes River Alliance 2016 Annual Donor Update

2016-donor-report-photo

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.


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Smallmouth Bass in the Lower Deschutes River

Many folks who have spent time on the lower Deschutes River this summer have noticed something unusual. Smallmouth bass, typically quite rare in the lower Deschutes, are suddenly present in large numbers. What are they doing there? Where did they come from? How does their presence affect resident fish? Today, we attempt to answer some of these questions, in two parts. In the first part of today’s post, we give an overview of this summer’s bass invasion, and attempt to sort out why we’re suddenly seeing so many of this particular species. In the second part, Steve Pribyl, former Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Fisheries Biologist for the lower Deschutes River, provides a history of smallmouth bass in the lower river—a critically important perspective on what we’re seeing in the river this year.

Part One: 2016 Lower Deschutes River Bass Invasion

The weird things happening in the lower Deschutes River and its tributaries just never seem to end. A year ago the big story in the lower river was the two fish die-offs in June and early July. First with sockeye near the mouth, then spring Chinook near the confluence with the Warm Springs River.

This year, like in a science fiction movie, it’s the invasion of smallmouth bass. In a science fiction movie the bass would be from outer space, but in this case they are, in all likelihood, from the Columbia River.

Almost as soon as anglers began fishing for steelhead this summer in the Deschutes River’s lower 40 miles, we started hearing reports of smallmouth bass being caught. There have always been stories and rumors of a bass being caught here or there, perhaps once or twice a season in the lower river. But the reports this summer were of six bass being caught at a time! Or a dozen or more in a single float trip. Far more bass were being caught than steelhead (no surprise given the weak steelhead run this year).

By mid-August we had reports of smallmouth bass being caught as far upstream as Buckhollow Boat Ramp.

The most successful lure or fly for catching smallmouth in the Deschutes this summer was the Blue Fox spinner. We also heard reports of smallmouth bass being taken on steelhead flies, with streamers seeming to be the most productive. It is worth noting that these are not the sorts of flies and lures one would use if purposefully fishing for bass!

The problem with the bass invasion is that no one seems to know if these fish have moved in permanently, or are just visiting. We’ll not know until next year. But there is reason for alarm. If these fish do become residents in the lower Deschutes River, the redband trout population is at certain risk. Smallmouth bass and redband trout do not coexist well. Multiple examples abound of healthy rainbow trout populations being decimated after the introduction of bass into a trout fishery.

Why are smallmouth bass moving into the lower river? The most likely answer anyone has proposed is that warm spring water temperatures in the lower Deschutes River lured bass up from the Columbia River. Bass come out of winter dormancy when water temperatures reach the mid- to upper fifties, or even sixty degrees. They then seek out warm water to increase spawning success. This year the lower Deschutes River reached those sorts of temperatures over a month before the Columbia River did, likely attracting bass at that time. (For a biological discussion of smallmouth bass and temperature influence on bass behavior, see http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/Library/337846.pdf ).

The following graph shows that the Columbia River in The Dalles pool reached 60 degrees F right around June 1.

columbia-graph

And this graph shows that the lower Deschutes River at Moody (just upstream from the confluence with the Columbia River) first reached 60 degrees F in mid-April.

deschutes-graph

Another important question as we unravel this mystery is whether the lower Deschutes River at Moody is warmer now than it was prior to selective water withdrawal operations at the Pelton-Round Butte Complex. There are no data with which to make that determination, as there wasn’t a temperature gauge at Moody until July 2011. However, the following graph shows that temperatures immediately below Pelton-Round Butte are now much warmer in the spring than they were prior to the commencement of selective water withdrawal operations.

graph-3

Previous DRA research has illustrated that these higher discharge temperatures at Pelton-Round Butte impact river temperatures all the way to the confluence with the Columbia River. So it’s quite likely that spring temperatures at Moody are now significantly higher than before SWW operations began. Unfortunately, these higher spring temperatures resulting from SWW operations may very well be responsible for this year’s smallmouth bass invasion.

It has been suggested that bass in the lower Deschutes River might be of little consequence as bass and other species seem to be coexisting in the John Day River. But this is not an analogous situation. There isn’t a redband trout fishery in the John Day River that would be threatened by smallmouth bass. Juvenile anadromous fish are said to migrate down the John Day River somewhat earlier in the year than Deschutes River steelhead and Chinook juveniles. This means that in the John Day River the juveniles are migrating in colder water temperatures, when smallmouth bass are still dormant.

We won’t know the longer-term consequence of this year’s bass invasion until next year. If juvenile bass are present in the lower Deschutes River, it will be safe to assume that they have colonized the lower river.

Part Two: History of Smallmouth Bass in the Lower Deschutes River

By: Steve Pribyl

I worked for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife as a fish biologist on the lower 100 miles of the Deschutes River from 1977 to 1980, and again from 1985 to 2004. In addition to this work experience, I fished the river extensively during those years and have been able to spend even more time fishing since my retirement. I am very familiar with the history of smallmouth bass in the lower Deschutes River.

With the exception of drastically increased smallmouth bass abundance in 1996, which I will discuss below, there has always been a very, very small background number of smallmouth bass in the Deschutes River downstream from Macks Canyon (river mile 25). Before this year, the furthest upstream that I had personally observed a smallmouth bass was at Bull Run (river mile 18), with other very occasional observations downstream from there.

I fished the river downstream from Macks Canyon extensively for both trout and summer steelhead for almost 40 years before catching my first smallmouth bass this summer. Similarly, friends of mine that have guided professionally for steelhead on the river, several for more than 30 years, have caught very few smallmouth bass. Prior to this summer, these friends relate to me that in their entire careers on the Deschutes (with the exception of 1996, as discussed below), they probably caught less than 10 smallmouth bass total in literally thousands of days on the river.

Steve Pribyl with a recent catch.

Steve Pribyl with a recent catch.

1996 was an unusual year in the lower Deschutes River. That year, smallmouth bass were very abundant downstream from approximately Harris Canyon (river mile 12). In August 1996, guides reported catching up to 8 or 10 smallmouth each day while fishing for summer steelhead. I recall rowing an enforcement trip with members of the Oregon State Police, Fish and Wildlife Division, that summer where we contacted two anglers at Sharp’s Bar (river mile 5.5) that were actually targeting smallmouth bass and having considerable success. I specifically remember this event because while we were observing these subjects at a distance through binoculars, it appeared they were catching and keeping trout in excess of the legal size and catch limits. I recall the disappointment of the Oregon State Police troopers when further investigation revealed the fish to be smallmouth and no citations were going to be issued!

Smallmouth bass continued to be caught regularly and in impressive numbers throughout August and into early September of that year, but disappeared from the catch by mid to late September.

The sudden abundance of smallmouth in the lower Deschutes River in 1996 was both troubling and curious to me at the time. Large numbers of smallmouth had been present in the Columbia for many, many years, and the fish were present in Lake Billy Chinook, the reservoir formed by Round Butte Dam at about river mile 110. Yet they were rarely seen in the Deschutes River. I theorized at the time that either water temperatures in the Deschutes were colder than smallmouth bass really preferred, or the gradient of the Deschutes was higher then they could cope with very effectively. Either or both of these factors kept smallmouth bass from colonizing the river from upstream or downstream. Yet suddenly, in the summer of 1996, large numbers of smallmouth bass were present in the lower 12 miles. The temperature regime in the Deschutes had not changed that year, and obviously the gradient had not changed to allow smallmouth to live more effectively there.

With the information at hand, we formed a theory about the sudden increase in smallmouth bass that year. The passage of time, while not proving the theory correct, certainly has not disproved it either.

There was a very large rain on snow flood event in early February, 1996. Without researching flows in the Deschutes basin, I do recall that flows at the Moody gage were in excess of 70,000 cfs and that Warm Springs River at its mouth flowed in excess of 30,000 cfs.   Large volumes of flood water coming into Lake Billy Chinook necessitated a period of spill from the reservoir. Again, without researching it, I don’t recall how much was spilled, or for how long, but it was substantial. We theorized that there were many smallmouth bass entrained in that flood spill and passed through both Lake Simtustus and the Reregulation Dam Reservoir into the flowing Deschutes. These smallmouth bass, finding the upper parts of the Deschutes colder than their preferred temperature, progressively moved downstream until they found the warmer water of late summer in the lower 12 miles more to their liking, where they then took up residence. When water temperatures cooled in mid- to late September below those that smallmouth prefer, the fish again started to move downstream, this time into the Columbia. After 1996, smallmouth were again only a very rare capture, and I largely quit worrying about the species invading the lower Deschutes.

Smallmouth abundance in the lower 12 miles of the Deschutes has changed dramatically in 2016. In July, anglers started to catch five to ten per day while targeting steelhead, with steelhead gear in steelhead water. Several anglers in early August have actually targeted smallmouth and report catch rates of up to 10 smallmouth per hour, catch rates that would be considered good on the John Day River, a regionally famous smallmouth fishery. Smallmouth in excess of 16 inches in length have been reported from the Deschutes this summer. Even more unusual—and almost beyond belief—is the photo documentation of a largemouth bass caught in the Deschutes at river mile 12 in early August! This is the one and only documented largemouth sighting I am aware of in the Deschutes and I can’t even begin to wrap my head around what that means.

The obvious questions are (1) where are these smallmouth bass coming from, and (2) what has changed to allow the species to flourish in the lower Deschutes? With regard to the first question, I believe these fish are traveling up the Deschutes from the Columbia River. The protocol at the Pelton-Round Butte fish passage facility is to not pass smallmouth captured at that facility downstream into the lower Deschutes, so it is unlikely the fish originated above the dams.

So what is allowing smallmouth to flourish in the lower river this summer? While stream gradient in the lower Deschutes has obviously stayed constant, temperatures in the lower Deschutes have changed significantly. I believe PGE’s surface water withdrawal operations, designed to aid downstream juvenile passage at the Pelton-Round Butte Complex, have increased water temperatures in the lower river enough, and for a long enough period of time, that smallmouth bass are now able to invade the Deschutes from the Columbia River and find conditions that have apparently allowed them to flourish.

It remains to be seen how long smallmouth will now continue to use the lower river, but with continued releases of warmer water into the Deschutes from the surface of Lake Billy Chinook the situation is not likely to change. This is certainly troublesome, given the obvious negative impacts to resident salmonids from smallmouth predation.


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