Debate over Deschutes water quality, fish health continues

Round Butte Dam mixing tower stirs up controversy

Special report Deschutes River...

CULVER, Ore. - Anglers from all over the world flock to the Deschutes River for its world-class fishing, but some say the waters are not healthy and the fish are suffering.

The Selective Water Withdrawal System, or water mixing tower, at Round Butte Dam has put Portland General Electric in hot water. The water temperature below the dam has increased since its installation in 2010.

River guides Elke and Alysia Littleleaf are among those who say something is wrong with their beloved river.

“The first thing we started paying attention to was the black spot disease. When you turn them over, you can see the black spot disease on their stomach,” Alysia said.

Elke added, “If we throw our system off balance, it’s not going to work right. As native people, we always know to keep Mother Nature in perfect balance.”

The project was part of a relicensing agreement and brought on new owners, The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

“The tribes wanted to see changes in the environment (and) decided to take an ownership position,” said Jim Manion, general manager of Warm Springs Power and Water Enterprises.

The project has two objectives: Creating passage conditions to restore fish runs and mixing warm surface water on Lake Billy Chinook with cold water at the bottom of the lake to mimic pre-dam conditions.

“We’re seeing some promising results. We know that there are concerns,” PGE spokesman Steve Corson said recently.

The Littleleafs and others say the spike in water temperature has been negatively effecting the ecosystem.

“It’s a big huge circle of animals and insects that are affected by the water,” Elke said.

He said the algae is now growing out of control, the insect population is dying off and he’s seeing a host of problems on fish, including black spot disease and fish die-offs.

Those involved admit it’s a work in progress.

“We’re constantly doing studies, so it takes awhile for those results to come back. You’ve got to have patience in this field,” said PGE fisheries biologist Rebekah Burchell.

The company representatives said they continuously test water quality, and are learning and growing as the scientific evidence is revealed. Carson said they are seeing benefits.

“This was also the best year we’ve had for downstream fish passage. So that’s encouraging,” he said. “We’ve seen encouraging results for fish coming back with last year's record-breaking sockeye run coming into the upper basin, and also the fall Chinook on the lower river have had the best years over the past few years that they’ve had really ever in recent history.”

Still there are two sides, and only one river.

“Somebody has to get out and say these things, because our fish, our animals can’t speak for themselves,” Elke said.

PGE officials said they recognize people are concerned, but that this is a long-term project, and success won’t be measured in seven years.

“There’s a lot to be done. It’s a labor of love for the people involved, and we’re going to keep working on it,” Corson said.

PGE is currently doing a water quality study. They will post the findings when the results are in.
You’ll be able to find them at the link below.

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