Cooler, Cleaner Water for the Lower Deschutes River

By Greg McMillan On June 15, this is what the surface water on Lake Billy Chinook, immediately in front of the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower at Round Butte Dam, looked like:

Photo by Greg McMillan.

Rick Hafele and I were doing water quality sampling.  Here’s Rick dropping our Van Dorn sampler down to 200 ft. of depth.  The fish collection facility and entrance to the SWW Tower can be seen in the background.

Photo by Greg McMillan.

That green water resembling pond water was warm (67 degrees at 10:00 AM) and very alkaline (pH 9.6, yes 9.6!)* and could contain toxic algae.  The water at depth was cold (51 degrees) and clear with a pH of 7.0*.  The water that was historically drawn from the reservoir to drive turbines and then be discharged into the lower river was from the bottom.  The bottom where there is cooler, cleaner water.  Or H2O in chemistry speak.

It should also be noted that the U.S. Forest Service has as of June 10, issued a health warning regarding toxic blue-green algae being present in the Metolius arm of Lake Billy Chinook Reservoir.  Apparently due to a lack of resources and jurisdiction the U.S.F.S. is not investigating the possibility of toxic algae being present in other parts of the reservoir.

Now, much of the year that surface water that is algae laden comprises most of the water being discharged into the lower Deschutes.  This is ostensibly to guide juvenile hatchery fish planted in the reservoir tributaries to the collection facility at Round Butte Dam, where they are collected, tagged and transported by truck around the dams.

We’ve been documenting the problems that this surface water draw is creating in the lower river.  Just look at the surface water and what it contains!  No wonder the river has changed!  The dam operators deny there are problems.  We’ve not heard of one instance of acceptance of the problems that every astute angler who fishes the lower river has witnessed.  In the meantime, guides and outfitters, and regular anglers all know that in the past few weeks the hatches have died out.  That means few adult insects are mating.  It means that businesses dependent upon the lower river are feeling the impact.  We’ve heard from numerous outfitters and service providers that bookings are suddenly down on the lower river.  Way down.

Cooler, cleaner H2O.  Just what the lower river needs.  And it’s the Deschutes River Alliance's new motto.  Cooler, cleaner H2O.   It’s what we all need.

*pH is a measure of acidity and alkalinity from 0 to 14.  Pure water has a pH of 7.0.  The water quality standards for the State of Oregon call for a maximum pH of 8.5.  At 9.5, water has the pH of baking soda and is approaching the pH of milk of magnesia.  In nearly all instances in humans, a blood pH of greater than 7.5 is fatal.

“What the river says, that is what I say.”

From the poem, “Ask Me” by William Stafford, Oregon Poet Laureate.