PGE’s Experiment Isn’t Working; DRA Files Lawsuit To Comply With Clean Water Act
BY SSJ Staff
Could a program that was conceptualized to originally help fish on Oregon’s Deschutes River be doing more harm than good? It appears that is the case.
Since 2010 water temperatures in Central Oregon’s Deschutes River have steadily risen triggering an onslaught of issues including: fish die offs; large uncontrollable algae blooms; degraded fish habitat; decimated insect populations; and unseasonably warm river temperatures negatively affecting the steelhead and salmon fishing in the river.
In 2010 Portland General Electric and The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs implemented a Selective Water Withdrawal Tower at Pelton-Round Butte Dam. The tower was designed to create surface currents from Lake Billy Chinook to guide newly introduced anadromous fish from the three major tributaries (Deschutes, Metolius, Crooked rivers) to the tower; from there they would be transported by truck and released into the lower river. The tower was also created to allow for the mixing of warm surface water in Lake Billy Chinook with cold water from the bottom to mimic water temperatures in the lower Deschutes River as if the Pelton-Round Butte dam was never built.
By all accounts the project has failed. PGE has reported survival rates (20 percent) of juvenile salmonids too low to support self-sustaining populations of anadromous fish.
“I think in general the tower was built for worthy reasons and we support the introduction of fish in the upper basin, but the fact is it was an experiment,” says Jonah Sandford, executive director for the Deschutes River Alliance. “No one knew what impacts it would have on the lower river. We’ve had a long enough time frame to show that the experiment isn’t working.”
Prior to 2010 water released at Pelton Dam came from the bottom of the reservoir and river temperatures were conducive to fish survival and a healthy ecosystem. With the newly implemented tower, warm water from the surface is now released into the Deschutes causing the aforementioned problems.
“We have 50 years of evidence showing the river was a vibrant, healthy ecosystem. I don’t think you’ll find too many people who have visited the Deschutes, or who guide on the river, would have found much of a problem before the tower went in,” says Sandford.
The Deschutes River Alliance recently filed a lawsuit against PGE citing more than 1,600 Clean Water Act violations. According to the suit, the Clean Water Act violations are indicative of larger impacts to the lower Deschutes.
“We think those impacts are a result of the water quality violations. The Clean Water Act is very specific and they’re not meeting those requirements,” says Sandford.
Native trout, salmon and steelhead thrive best in water temperatures below 62 degrees. Prior to the introduction of the tower the average water temperature in the spring and summer fluctuated between 55 and 65 degrees with the occasional spike above 70 degrees. Since the tower was installed the daily high temperatures in June and July consistently approach the mid-70s.
“Those sort of temperatures are starting to approach lethal levels for salmonids,” says Steve Pribyl, a retired fishery biologist for the ODFW and now a board member for the DRA.
The warming water temperatures have also allowed for smallmouth and largemouth bass to flourish. The fact that these non-native species are common, and in some cases colonizing in the lower river, is yet another sign that the spike in water temperature has drastically altered the river makeup.
“I’ve been on the river for 40 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” adds Pribyl.
The DRA is hoping its lawsuit will force PGE and the tribes to stop discharging surface water into the lower river; comply with ODEQ’s water quality requirements; and successfully reintroduce anadromous fish above Round Butte Dam without negatively impacting the lower river in the process.
“That would be a good place to start,” says Sandford.