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


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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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Announcing the DRA’s First-Ever Gathering!

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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.

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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.


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

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DRA Responds to Portland General Electric’s Motion to Dismiss Clean Water Act Lawsuit

Round Butte Dam and the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower.

Round Butte Dam and the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower.

This summer, the Deschutes River Alliance filed a lawsuit against Portland General Electric, seeking to enforce conditions of the Clean Water Act § 401 water quality certification for the Pelton-Round Butte Hydroelectric Complex.

These conditions, formulated by the state agency in charge of regulating water quality—here, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ))—play a critical role in ensuring that hydroelectric projects comply with state water quality standards. Compelling PGE to adhere to these standards is critical to our efforts to restore the water quality and ecology of the lower Deschutes River.

PGE recently filed a motion to dismiss the DRA’s lawsuit. In its motion, PGE argued that citizens (including groups like the DRA) have no authority to enforce the water quality conditions found in a § 401 water quality certification.

We strongly disagree with PGE’s position, and on Monday, October 17 we filed our response to PGE’s motion to dismiss. The clear language of the CWA, along with previous court decisions and other authority, establish that Congress authorized citizens to enforce these important water quality requirements.

It’s important to note that PGE’s argument did not end with its misguided claim that citizens lack enforcement authority in these situations. In addition, PGE argues that the states that write these water quality-related requirements also have no enforcement authority. This surely comes as a surprise to the many states, including Oregon, that regularly enforce the Clean Water Act.

In PGE’s telling, once a dam has obtained a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license, only FERC has the authority to enforce § 401 water quality requirements. This in spite of the fact that FERC does not write the requirements, does not formulate the state standards those requirements are based on, has no expertise about water quality, and is not authorized to implement the Clean Water Act. And we have been unable to find even one example of FERC actually taking an enforcement action for violations of § 401 water quality requirements.

No doubt exclusive FERC enforcement authority would be convenient for PGE and other hydroelectric operators across the country, but such a result would undermine citizen and agency authority to protect and preserve water quality. It also would leave hydroelectric operators with virtually no effective water quality-related oversight. But PGE’s argument finds no support in the Clean Water Act. We intend to fight aggressively here, on behalf of the lower Deschutes and rivers across the country.


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The DRA Position on Fish Reintroduction in the Deschutes Basin

Fish captured at Selective Water Withdrawal Tower being prepared for truck transportation around the three dams at the Pelton-Round Butte Hydroelectric Complex. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Fish captured at Selective Water Withdrawal Tower being prepared for truck transportation around the three dams at the Pelton-Round Butte Hydroelectric Complex. Photo by Greg McMillan.

A Portland General Electric (PGE) spokesperson recently stated that the Deschutes River Alliance is opposed to the reintroduction of salmon and steelhead above the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex. Here is the quote: “They [the DRA] want to go back to status quo prior to the selective water withdrawal system, and essentially to abandon the reintroduction effort for salmon and steelhead above the dams.”  The statement was made in the August 24, 2016 edition of The Source newspaper.

We are not sure what the PGE spokesperson was basing that information on. We have never stated that we want to “abandon the reintroduction effort.” His statement was erroneous and misleading. The DRA has regularly asserted our support for fish reintroduction – on our blog, at public events, and in various publicly disseminated documents.

The Deschutes River Alliance does support fish reintroduction as long as it doesn’t take place in violation of the Clean Water Act, or degrade the ecology of the lower Deschutes River and tributaries above the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex.

However, if the fish reintroduction goals are not attainable without serious negative consequences to other valuable resources, then the value of fish reintroduction needs to be reassessed. Unfortunately, what the PGE representative might have been trying to say is that PGE can only conduct fish reintroduction with the methods being currently employed. We believe that demonstrates a lack of willingness to adapt to conditions as they are. The concept of “adaptive management” is written into the dam license documents. To date all adaptive management efforts have been directed at reducing the water quality requirements for dam operation. Nothing has been changed; the goals have only been set lower. It is time to adopt alternatives that protect water quality while holding promise for even higher rates of fish reintroduction success.

Fish capture facility at the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Fish capture facility at the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower. Photo by Greg McMillan.

At the present time, fish reintroduction efforts based on surface water withdrawal at the Pelton-Round Butte Complex are consistently violating the Clean Water Act. That is the basis of our lawsuit against PGE, an action we do not take lightly or without extensive research, analysis and careful consideration.

Further, selective water withdrawal and the resulting water quality violations have led to major changes in the ecology of the lower Deschutes River. These include changes in benthic algae, changes in aquatic insect hatches and populations, and changes in insectivore (insect eater) populations such as songbirds and bats. Warmer spring water temperatures due to surface water withdrawal are very likely responsible for a smallmouth bass invasion in the lower river. This year the Deschutes River at the mouth reached 60 degrees about 45 days before the Columbia River did, likely luring bass from the Columbia into the Deschutes.

The ecological impacts of tower operations are not limited to the downstream ecosystem. A recent report (Genetic Determination of Stock of Origin for Oncorhynchus mykiss Collected in the Upper Deschutes River Basin, Adams, DeHaan, et al, March, 2015) states that native redband trout have been all but extirpated from Whychus Creek. The cause cited is the genetic introgression of hatchery steelhead (planted for reintroduction purposes), which, once planted in Whychus Creek, failed to out-migrate and spawned with native redband trout. This has perhaps changed the redband trout genetics in Whychus Creek forever.

We strongly support the habitat rehabilitation work being done on Whychus Creek, McKay Creek, the upper watershed of the Warm Springs River, and the work being done in the upper reaches of Trout Creek. These are necessary efforts. These habitat improvement projects should take place irrespective of fish reintroduction for all the benefits this work provides. But the hatchery fish used for reintroduction purposes should not displace native resident fish.

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

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

Fish reintroduction efforts began in 2008 when juvenile fish were first planted in the tributaries to Lake Billy Chinook. To date, the results of the reintroduction effort have been less than successful. Numerical goals defining successful fish reintroduction contained in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license for the project have never been met, and we can see no likelihood that they will be.

PGE has claimed that they need more time. To do what? What is going to change in the next year or two that will result in enough juvenile fish migrating to the fish collection facility at Round Butte Dam (there to be trucked around the dams), or enough adults returning to the Reregulation Dam (to be trucked up to the reservoir), to meet the stated and defined goals of the reintroduction program?

Last year 32 sockeye salmon returned to the Pelton-Round Butte Hydroelectric Complex. Later analysis showed that only 3 of those fish originated from the dam complex. PGE claims that this year 400 sockeye have returned to the project. But how many of those fish are from out of basin or not otherwise part of the reintroduction program? Steelhead and Chinook salmon returns have been less than bountiful. Juvenile arrival numbers at the fish collection facility at Round Butte Dam would predict no improvement in adult fish returns for at least the next few years.

An objective audit of the fish reintroduction program needs to take place. We believe a major revamping of the reintroduction program is necessary if the program is to succeed and the serious unintended consequences of reintroduction are to be stopped.

The DRA has always supported fish reintroduction. But the fundamental requirements of the Clean Water Act must be upheld, and the Deschutes River’s ecology and resident species must not be sacrificed.

The reason that fish need to be reintroduced is because several major runs of anadromous fish were lost when the dams were constructed, blocking access to some of the most important spawning habitat in the Deschutes Basin. Let’s not compound that loss with a new generation of loss.


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DRA Files Federal Lawsuit to Enforce Clean Water Act

Selective Water Withdrawal Tower surface struture. Round Butte Dam is to the right of the tower.

Selective Water Withdrawal Tower surface structure. Round Butte Dam is to the right of the tower.

On Friday, August 12, 2016, the DRA filed a Clean Water Act citizen suit against Portland General Electric (PGE), to enforce water quality requirements for dam operations at the Pelton-Round Butte Hydroelectric Project. The requirements are found in a water quality certification issued by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality as part of the federal licensing process for the Project.

These requirements, for criteria such as temperature, dissolved oxygen, and pH, were designed to ensure the Pelton-Round Butte Project complies with applicable Oregon water quality standards. Ultimately, the requirements and the underlying standards are aimed at preventing degradation of water quality, and at preventing harm to the various beneficial uses of the lower Deschutes River. Unfortunately, since the Project’s selective water withdrawal tower began operations in late 2009, PGE has operated the Project in violation of these requirements. Through June 2016, the DRA has identified over 1,600 daily violations of the Project’s water quality certification.

Fish being held at SWW Fish Collection Facility to await truck transportation around Pelton-Round Butte Dams.

Fish being held at SWW Fish Collection Facility to await truck transportation around Pelton-Round Butte Dams.

The fundamental mandates of the Clean Water Act must be upheld.   Many of us remember the days prior to the CWA. Rivers were so polluted in the United States that some caught fire. Fifty years ago, for example, the Willamette River was little better than a sewage ditch, and now vast reaches of it are restored. The lower Deschutes River must similarly be afforded every fundamental federal and state legal protection necessary to preserve and restore its beneficial uses and ecological integrity.

To date, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has not enforced the Project’s key water quality limitations, so the DRA is taking action directly under the Clean Water Act’s citizen suit provisions. The lawsuit has been filed in Federal District Court, District of Oregon, Portland Division, and we’ve placed a copy of the filing on our website.

Round Butte Dam to the right, SWW Tower in center. View is looking west at Metolius Arm of Lake Billy Chinook.

Round Butte Dam to the right, SWW Tower in center. View is looking west at Metolius Arm of Lake Billy Chinook.

Litigation is clearly an option of last resort. We remain open to discussion with PGE, of course, but this lawsuit, at this time, is a necessary step toward restoring the river we all love.


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