In Depth on the Deschutes - Part II: What now?

Lower Deschutes Wild and Scenic Area. Public Domain Photo: Bureau of Land Management

In the first part of our series, In Depth on the Deschutes, we explored the issues impacting the river and its fish today. In the second part of our series, we take a look at the goals Native Fish Society hopes to accomplish in the coming year for the system and for the Pelton Round Butte fish passage project in particular.

As noted previously, Native Fish Society continues to maintain our involvement on the Pelton Round Butte Fish Committee. While we have many concerns regarding the execution of reintroduction efforts, NFS continues to believe that our involvement with the Fish Committee and project is necessary. It would be easy to throw up our hands at the lack of progress and make a statement by walking away from the table. But doing so would remove our voice from the project as an advocate for wild, native fish. On the Deschutes, we know that we must maintain our seat at the table in order to achieve our goals to improve both water quality and reintroduction efforts.

That’s not to say we advocate for continuing with the status quo. The current state of interim agreements for water quality standards and failure to progress on meaningful reintroduction of anadromous fish is not acceptable. To that end, we have identified key goals that will inform our advocacy and work on the Deschutes in the coming year. These include:

Water Quality Goals

  1. End Interim Agreements for water quality standards. When the relicensing agreement went into effect in 2005, Portland General Electric (PGE) and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (the current owners and operators of the Pelton Round Butte Dams) requested a temporary water quality waiver from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ). PGE argued that it needed time to fully understand the impact to downstream water quality from the operation of the Selective Water Withdrawal (SWW) tower. PGE and ODEQ established interim agreements for water quality that were intended to be short-lived. These agreements have relaxed the water quality standards for temperature and dissolved oxygen levels that must be met by the Pelton Round Butte project. Nearly a decade since SWW operation began, interim agreements for water quality remain in place. It is time to put an end to these waivers. The Pelton Round Butte project must comply with water quality standards established by the state and by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. A key component will be public review of the water quality standards to be used on the Deschutes once the interim agreements are removed. NFS is advocating for an end to the interim agreements and for a public and transparent process in defining water quality expectations.
  2. Obtain independent analysis and public review of the PGE water quality surveys and modeling. PGE has undertaken a multiyear study to understand the impacts on water quality from the operations of the Pelton Round Butte project. The goal of the study is the production of several models that can be utilized to run simulations of various operating, climatic, and flow conditions to evaluate the impacts to the Lower Deschutes River caused by the water leaving the project. NFS knows that this scientific look can better inform ongoing management of the project and identify the impacts of modifying operations. However, we are greatly concerned over the lack of transparency and public input on the outcomes and evaluation. NFS will continue to advocate for public review and independent analysis of the water quality monitoring and modeling of the Pelton Round Butte project.
  3. Change operations of Pelton Round Butte to improve water quality of the Lower Deschutes River. It is time to identify and implement operational adjustments that address ongoing concerns over water quality in the lower river. Modified operations must provide cooler temperatures earlier in the summer, reduce algae in the lower river, and increase dissolved oxygen year-round for spawning trout.

Reintroduction of Salmon & Steelhead

  1. Establish agreed upon timelines and biological goals for reintroduction effort. Initial plans for operation of the SWW called for 50% downstream transfer of juvenile fish in the first five years of operation. After five years, 75% downstream transfer of juvenile fish was the established goal in the reintroduction plan. Yet transfer efficiency remains significantly below this threshold, especially for steelhead populations which continually experience transfer efficiencies below 20%. It is vital that we establish meaningful timelines for effective use of the SWW. And if biological goals for reintroduction aren’t met, there must be plans in place to effectively change course.
  2. Review Chinook, Sockeye, and steelhead hatchery reintroduction programs and develop metrics for decision-making in subsequent years. Hatchery programs with decreased genetic and life history diversity are hindering the establishment of meaningful Chinook and summer steelhead returns. It is imperative that hatchery programs are reviewed within the scope of how hatcheries impact recolonization by salmonids and must include the analysis and development of spawning matrix, juvenile rearing density, imprinting and homing, residualized juvenile outplants, the prevalence of precocial males, epigenetic effects, and other domestication concerns of the hatchery environment. The use of hatchery Sockeye should be evaluated and potentially limited as this is the only population currently trending toward recolonization in the basin.
  3. Formulate firm timeline for the duration of hatchery releases in the upper basin. Hatchery outplanting of significant numbers of fry and smolts continue to impact the few, wild fish remaining in the upper basin. These fish need to be protected so that they may serve as an added source population for reintroduction. We discourage stocking of reaches with quality habitat and existing wild fish populations, especially in Wychus Creek where significant restoration work has improved habitat and flows for wild fish.
  4. Encourage passage of Sockeye strays after they are cleared of pathogens. Out of basin Sockeye are straying into the Deschutes. Passing these fish into the upper basin would mimic natural recolonization. To address concerns of disease introduction, Sockeye strays would need to be examined and cleared before being passed above Pelton Round Butte.
  5. Evaluate the economics of reintroduction program. As the SWW design is being considered to meet reintroduction targets in other river systems like the Willamette, it’s time to assess whether the investment made on the Deschutes has been, and continues to be, the best and most effective use of the dollars available.
  6. Assess current status of reintroduction goals in the context of the timelines established by the FERC license. It’s time to ensure that all stakeholders are on the same page about where we are and where we should be. We must address the growing gap between what was agreed to, what actions have been implemented, and how far the project is from meeting the explicit goals set forth in the license and associated fish reintroduction plan.

Work towards these goals is underway. We continue to collaborate with our conservation partners on the Fish Committee to achieve these strategic objectives for the Pelton Round Butte project. To that end, we submitted comments this winter on the 2018 Fish Passage Plans, evaluating proposed operational and management changes in the context of these criteria (you can read our comments below).

NFS recognizes that there are many complex dynamics impacting the outcomes of reintroduction in the Upper Deschutes River basin. We acknowledge that large investments of time, resources, and money have been expended toward reintroduction efforts already. However, we cannot let these investments obstruct meaningful evaluation of the project or implementation of any significant operational changes that may be necessary.

It is imperative that all parties at the table assess and establish timelines for changing course if current plans and operational adjustments cannot improve downstream water quality or meet fish reintroduction goals above the Pelton Round Butte Project.

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