Walleye. In the Deschutes River?

The fish have spoken. And those fish are walleye. Remarkably, there are now walleye in the lower Deschutes River. As far as anyone is aware, this has never happened before. We wish this was good news. But it’s not.

We’ve been getting reports of walleye being hooked and landed as far upriver as Kloan, at River Mile 7. We’d not mentioned it yet as we were waiting for documentation of a landed walleye. Now we have it–the walleye in the photo below was landed at River Mile 4.5.

Photo provided by Deschutes River guide Brad Staples, pictured on the right.

In addition to walleye, smallmouth bass continue to be been taken in good numbers in the lower river this summer, for the second straight year. Trout and steelhead, not so much.

What does this mean for the lower river? As the lower river ecology and habitat changes due to Selective Water Withdrawal operations, so do the species that thrive in the new conditions. Warmer water attracts warm water fish. As insect populations decrease, piscivorous fish (fish that feed on other fish) increase.

Further, this is not good news for salmon and steelhead juvenile migration. Juvenile steelhead and salmon are preferred food items for walleye and often for bass, much as they are for northern pikeminnow. Bass and walleye are also capable of feeding on crawdads, worms and insects, and generally are known for being highly predatory feeding machines.

Looking into the mouth of the walleye. Photo from American Expedition.

We are repeatedly told by the agencies responsible for Deschutes River management that nothing has changed in the lower Deschutes River since the implementation of surface water withdrawal at Round Butte Dam. But lets consider the list of easily observable changes:

  • Bass and walleye incursion
  • Increased water temperatures throughout the lower river’s 100 miles, from mid-winter through spring and summer
  • Black Spot Disease widely spread in trout, steelhead, and bull trout
  • Invasive nuisance algae
  • Significant change in insect community structure, and decline in adult insect abundance
  • Observations of declining bird populations

Clearly, this is no longer the river we knew prior to 2010. But fortunately, we know these problems are not inevitable. A return to cooler, cleaner water discharged from the Pelton Round Butte Project can begin alleviating these discouraging ecological changes in the lower river. It’s time for the responsible agencies, dam operators, and other parties to admit that the Selective Water Withdrawal tower is responsible for some serious unintended consequences, and begin charting a new path forward for lower river management.

The Deschutes River Alliance will remain on the front lines of the battle to restore this treasured river. Please join us in our efforts.

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Black Spot Disease Seen in Lower Deschutes River Fish

By Greg McMillan

We started receiving reports of “black spot” disease in lower Deschutes River bull trout a few weeks ago.  The first report was from Andrew Perrault from the Gorge Fly Shop in Hood River.  He sent along these photos and it is pretty easy to tell these black spots are not normal on bull trout.  Many of us know that bull trout are species Salvelinus and thus members of the char group.  These fish don’t have black spots as normal coloration.

Photo by Andrew Perrault.

Photo by Andrew Perrault.

Photo by Andrew Perrault.

Photo by Andrew Perrault.

Close up of lesions assumed to be due to black spot disease. Photo by Andrew Perrault.

Close up of lesions assumed to be due to black spot disease. Photo by Andrew Perrault.

Black spot disease on lower Deschutes River bull trout. Photo by Ryland Moore.

Black spot disease on lower Deschutes River bull trout. Photo by Ryland Moore.

Since that first report we’ve heard of other observations of black spot disease on both bull trout and red band trout.  The presence of black spot disease has been confirmed by sources at Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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 fish, the fish develops an immune response that causes the dark spot.

Kingfishers are the next host, which become infected when they ingest infected fish.  The cercariae develop into adult flatworms.  The parasite then produces eggs, which are shed in feces by kingfishers, and deposited in water where the life cycle is reinitiated.

Black spot flatworm. Illustration by Bruce Worden.

Black spot flatworm. Illustration by Bruce Worden.

These flatworms do not appear to be fatal to fish, or other hosts.  There are scattered reports of fish stressed from other sources dying while infected.  No human infections have been reported, but there is no real surveillance mechanism to detect human infections.  Although probably safe for human consumption after thorough cooking, there are no study data to confirm that.

None of us who have fished the lower Deschutes River for decades can say that we’ve seen many, if any, fish with this condition.  There are reports indicating there have been infected fish in the lower Deschutes River and tributaries in the past, but they aren’t common.  So what has changed?  Is this random?  Or linked to the ongoing ecological changes we are all seeing in the lower river?

This might be related to an increase in the snail population in the lower Deschutes River.  Portland General Electric’s Year 1 Data Summary Report from their Lower Deschutes River Macroinvertebrate and Periphyton Report Study published in 2014, indicates that there has been a significant increase in snail populations in the lower Deschutes River.  This increase in population in the intermediate host (snails) might be related to the increase in black spot disease noted in fish.  The snail population increase is likely linked to the increase in algae in the lower river.

Is this a catastrophic occurrence?  Probably not.  But it could be another indication of ecological change in the lower Deschutes River.

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Saving It for Fall: An Exercise in Redundancy

It’s fall time.  Everything says it.  The weather has finally turned.  Leaves are red and gold on deciduous bushes and trees.  Nights are cool, most days too.  The calendar tells us that we are now well past the Fall Equinox.

Ok, so the evidence is in.  It’s fall.  Can anyone disagree?  Why even ask that question?

Because in a recent “public information” piece, Portland General Electric (PGE) states that cold water needs to be held back in Lake Billy Chinook during hot summer months, and to not do so “could create worse conditions for fish later in the year.”  Based on presentations and publications by PGE that we’ve seen, “later in the year” means the fall.  It implies the cold water is needed for arriving Fall Chinook, who begin to spawn within a short period of time after arriving in the lower Deschutes River.  The Fall Chinook, true to their name, are now in the lower Deschutes River.

So where is that cold water that PGE needed to hold on to last summer when it could have been used to cool an overly warm lower Deschutes?  Apparently still in Lake Billy Chinook.

Here is what discharge temperatures from the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex look like from August 1 until now:

Water temperatures at Madras gage, August-September, 2015. Source: USGS online.

Water temperatures at Madras gage, August-September, 2015. Source: USGS online.

Note that the average temperature being discharged has only dropped about one degree F.  Yes, a whole degree.  Now look at the lower river temperature near the mouth at the Moody gauge 100 miles below the dam complex:

Water temperatures at Moody gage, August-September 2015. Source: USGS online.

Water temperatures at Moody gage, August-September 2015. Source: USGS online.

What you are seeing is nearly a ten-degree drop in temperature since August 1.  That would be fairly typical fall time cooling, despite it being a warmer than usual fall.  So adding any cold water from the reservoir now is (dare we say this?) redundant.

We are grateful that PGE gives Fall Chinook spawning such a high priority.  We wish they’d do the same with native redband trout spawning.  Over the course of the past two years, PGE has engaged in rolling back the legally defined timeframe for cold-water fish spawning and incubation in the lower Deschutes.  Until recently, that period was defined as being from October 15 until August 1 of each year.  That period encompasses spawning times for all cold-water fish species in the lower river.  The defined spawning and incubation period also carries legal requirements under Oregon Administrative Rules for minimums for dissolved oxygen and maximum limits for water temperature.

PGE has been engaging with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in a systematic fashion, out of public view, to roll back the end point of the defined spawning time from August 1 to June 15 (and yes, we have solid evidence of that).  So now, between June 15 and August 1 of each year, water discharged from the dam complex can be warmer and have lower oxygen levels than prior to the change.

This photo was taken on July 30, 2015.  It is obviously a fresh redd, and is undoubtedly a redband trout red.  This unaltered photo was taken in the lower Deschutes River below the dam complex.  No spawning after June 15?   Say what?  Apparently the fish did not get the memo explaining that spawning and incubation now ends on June 15.

Photo by Greg McMillan.

Photo by Greg McMillan.

Why would PGE want to roll back the spawning period definition?  To make dam operations have less impact on the lower Deschutes?  Apparently not.  The problem at the dams is that the warmer the water is, the harder it is to maintain adequate levels of dissolved oxygen.  But why change operations when you can change the rules?

Now let’s address another statement in PGE’s “public information” piece.  It is stated that exposure to “direct sunlight” causes warming of the water released from the dam complex, and that “to reduce water temperatures slightly (our emphasis) at our project… (water) would just be warmed again by the time it arrived, 100 miles downstream.”

Fair enough.  The problem is that the sun doesn’t shine 24 hours a day.  The ambient canyon conditions are not the same throughout a 24-hour period.  We were recently, while analyzing thermal imaging data, able to track flows discharged from the dam complex during low light and darkness for up to 90 miles downstream.  The length of river cooled during those low light or nighttime flows can make up nearly the entire length of the lower river.

When fish are dying in the lower river, whether those fish are from the lower Deschutes or not, it’s time to not just facilitate “slight” water temperature reductions, but drop the temperatures as much as possible.  During the summer, the water at the bottom of Lake Billy Chinook is twenty degrees cooler than the surface water being used at the Tower; so much cooler water is available to discharge into the lower river.  Do we really want more heat related fish die-offs?  Or is it really better to save the cold water for fall time?

An article just appeared in The Drake magazine by Steve Hawley, author of the book, Saving a Lost River.  In the article he describes the bottom draw operation at Round Butte Dam that existed prior to construction of the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower as an “unnatural act, but one that anglers around the world came to appreciate.”  Yes we did.

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Lower Deschutes Redband Trout Harvest Rule Change Proposal Rescinded by ODFW

This past Monday, August 31, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife issued a press release announcing that the proposed rule change that would have allowed harvest of two redband trout of 8 inches or longer per day on the lower Deschutes River, has been withdrawn.

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

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

This news has delivered a sense of relief to many longtime anglers on the lower river, many of whom responded with letters and emails to the OFDW Commission expressing their opposition to the proposed regulation change.  A number fly shops, guides and outfitters committed to not only sending in comments to the Commission, but had made plans to testify in Seaside on Friday, September 4 opposing the rule change.

Jon Belozer deserves special credit for sounding the alarm on the rule change.  Mark Bachman put a lot of time into making phone calls, writing emails, and was packing his bags to attend the Commission hearing.  John and Amy Hazel sent out emails to nearly 4,000 customers asking them to respond to the Commission’s proposal, and the Hazels were prepared to travel to Seaside to testify before the Commission.  John Smeraglio notified his customers and had them send in emails.  Brad Staples produced many emails to many contacts.   And I know that these business owners and guides were not alone.  Others contributed to the effort too.

The DRA wants to express our deep sense of gratitude to everyone who responded to the proposed rule change.  Our supporters stepped up and delivered when it was necessary.  Thank you for sending emails and writing letters.

We also want to express thanks to the staff at ODFW for recognizing the value the angling public places on conservation management on the lower Deschutes.  To those at ODFW involved in that process, thank you.  And on behalf of all of our supporters, we extend thanks to ODFW.

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Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commissioners Considering Opening Lower Deschutes Trout Fishery to Kill for Fish Over 8 Inches

The Urgent Issue

On Friday, September 4, the ODFW Commissioners will be voting on a large package of angling rule changes created to “simplify” the Oregon fishing regulations.

One of the rule changes calls for opening up kill on redband trout in the lower Deschutes River.  Presently, there is a “slot limit” that only allows the take of 2 redband trout between 10 and 13 inches of length per day.  The new rule would allow the taking of any 2 redband trout over 8 inches per day.

Our position at the DRA is that if the Commission wishes to simplify the angling rules, the easiest thing would be to do away with any kill of redband trout on the lower Deschutes by making it a catch and release fishery with the required use of barbless hooks.  Now that would be simple!  Easy to understand, no measuring of fish would be necessary, and it would be easily enforceable.  Anything short of this deserves a deferral on decision-making to allow the public to provide input on rule changes.

You can support us in this by emailing the ODFW Commissioners at:


We are hoping that the Commission will receive at least 1,000 emails from those of us who love the lower Deschutes River.  Everyone who reads this needs to send an email.  Help us meet a goal of 1000 emails by sending one today!  Do it now!

You can find a summary of the proposed rule changes via this link:

ODFW 2015 Statewide Proposed Regulation Changes

For more information on the Commission and the upcoming meeting:

ODFW Commission Meeting Agenda – September 3 and 4, 2015 

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

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

Why Does ODFW Want to Open Up Kill of Redband Trout?

Part of the justification for proposing opening up kill on fish over 8 inches on the lower river is that the river “already has a catch and release culture.”   So the question would be why does ODFW want to use that as a justification for opening up kill?  This makes no sense.

As a matter of fact, this change could very well change the catch and release “culture” of the lower river by inviting in a harvest mentality, which would have the opposite effect suggested as a consequence of the rule change.

This could also have a long-term impact on the economy that has grown around the catch and release “culture” of the lower river.  We’ve done some first order approximations of the value of the lower river fishery (and will be commissioning a formal economics study in the near future).  We’ve determined that the lower Deschutes fishery is worth roughly $135 million per year (using American Sportfishing Association guidelines).  Trout angling is only a part of that total dollar amount.  But why does ODFW want to punish the businesses dependent upon the current angling practices on the lower river?

No one has proposed a biological benefit of the new rule opening up kill for redband trout over 8 inches that is based on data.  As a matter of fact, ODFW recently completed a study in which they claim the lower river redband trout population is healthy.  So why do they want to change trout harvest management?

It would appear that the proposed change is a heavy-handed measure without biological benefit.  So why?

“Simplifying” Angling Rules and a Possible Larger Agenda

It’s not just the Deschutes that is potentially impacted by the current rule change proposals.  The new “simplified” rules would have statewide impacts on many rivers and lakes.  Some of the rule changes would be positive, some have negative consequences for established fisheries, and some are frankly meaningless.  Opening high lakes prior to the opening of the roads to access them each year would have little or no benefit to many anglers, or to the fish.

Certainly the angling rules need some simplification.  The language used in many of the rules is confusing and hard to understand.  Some improvements are needed.  Clearer writing would fix many of the problems.

The rule changes have apparently been in the works for months.  There has been little or no effective notification of the public of the nature of this rule making process.  The public meeting wherein the rules will be adopted is being held the Friday of Labor Day weekend in Seaside.  There is probably no more difficult location to travel to on that date than Seaside.  In case you are interested in going, there are presently no hotel/motel rooms and no campsites available in the Seaside area due to the holiday.

Anyone wishing to testify on the proposed rules will be allowed three minutes to testify.  No one can testify on all of the proposed rule changes in three minutes!

If you try to find the proposed rule changes on ODFW’s website without the link provided above, good luck.  You won’t find the proposed rule changes using Google or the ODFW website search engine.  You have to dig to find them.  Why are the proposed rule changes being posted in a way that makes them obscure and difficult to access?  Why are they not being publicized via public media?  Why hasn’t there been email notification of effected constituencies?

We ask the Commission, please, defer voting on the present proposals until adequate opportunities have been created to obtain public input.  The public deserves to be heard on these matters.

Fishing the lower Deschutes River. Photo by Brian O'Keefe.

Fishing the lower Deschutes River. Photo by Brian O’Keefe.

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Second Fish Kill Detected in Lower Deschutes River


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

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

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

Probable Cause of Death

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

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

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

Photo by Damien Nurre.

Photo by Damien Nurre.

River Conditions

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

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

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

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

Photo by Andrew Dutterer.

Photo by Andrew Dutterer.

What To Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

What You Can Do

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


Or call them at:

Community Affairs: 503-464-8599

Corporate Communications: 503-464-8949

Special Thanks

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

Greg McMillan

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

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The Heat Wave: Part 2


By Greg McMillan

The record-breaking heat wave that has taken the Pacific Northwest and held it hostage continues.  Fortunately it looks like there is a break coming this weekend.  Temperatures are predicted to drop by ten to fifteen degrees by Sunday, July 12.  That is very good news for fish.

In the meantime, more fish have been reported to be dying in the lower Deschutes.  Dead sockeye salmon have been seen as high as 3 miles upstream from the mouth of the Deschutes.   Dead sockeye are reported to be floating by the boat ramp at Heritage Landing, at the mouth of the Deschutes.  Steve Pribyl (retired ODFW fish biologist and DRA board member), is floating the lower river and will return on July 9 and we’ll have an update on the status of the fish kill at that time.

Autopsy reports just released by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife indicate that the sockeye salmon are dying not just of heat stress, but of an infection associated with high water temperatures: columnaris.  In their press release, ODFW suggests that these fish went up the Deschutes seeking refuge from the Columbia River.

The Columbia River, like all bodies of water right now, is getting hot.  Here’s how hot:

July 2015 Columbia River water temperatures. Source: USGS online.

July 2015 Columbia River water temperatures at The Dalles, Oregon. Source: USGS online.

That means that fish are seeking refuge in any cooler water that they can.  In a cruel trick of fate, fish were probably being lured into the Deschutes from the Columbia when overnight temperatures would get down to about 68 degrees in the Deschutes.  Then the next day the Deschutes would warm up to a temperature that exceeded that of the Columbia, making the situation even worse for the fish that sought relief in the Deschutes.

July 2015 lower Deschutes River temperatures at Moody. Source: USGS online.

July 2015 lower Deschutes River water temperatures at Moody gage (mouth of the Deschutes River, near the confluence with the Columbia River). Source: USGS online.

It’s now likely that fish, especially sockeye salmon, are dying in the Columbia.  They need cold-water refugia in the tributaries.  These might very well be Snake River sockeye salmon listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act.

Clearly fish in the lower Deschutes that aren’t dying are stressed at this point.  Anywhere the river is exceeding 70 degrees during the day the fish will be working to survive.

Meanwhile, at the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex, the dam operators continue to crank up the heat, making the lower river even warmer.  Need we say more?

July 2015 lower Deschutes River water temperatures at Madras (discharge from the Pelton-Round Butte dam complex). Source: USGS online.

July 2015 lower Deschutes River water temperatures at Madras gage (discharge point from the Pelton-Round Butte dam complex). Source: USGS online.

These temperatures are from the Pelton Reregulation Dam tailrace.  Given how hot it is, perhaps the dam operators can’t change the temperature of the river all of the way to the mouth (although there are data showing that in some circumstances they can).  But as cold, clean water sits at the bottom of the reservoir and the lower river is gripped in a heat wave that is killing fish, it seems like it’s time to let some of that cold water go.

Until December 31, 2009, all water discharged into the lower river was from the bottom of the reservoir.  Then Portland General Electric and The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation constructed the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower to create surface currents in Lake Billy Chinook and provide temperature control for water discharged from the dam.  That temperature control is being implemented in a way that makes a bad situation worse.  We hope the dam operators begin to recognize the importance and value of the lower Deschutes River and provide cooler temperatures for the lower river.  They have cold water to use in this urgent time of need.  So use it.

This situation speaks for itself.

If you would like to let PGE know what you think, there is a  “Contact Us” function on their website.  It can be found at:

PGE: Contact Us


Ask them your questions.  Leave them your contact information.

Or call them.

PGE Community Affairs: 

PGE Corporate Communications: 503-464-8949

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