The Problem With the Water Quality Data in the PGE Lower Deschutes River Report by R2 Consultants

Pic 1 R2 Report The above report (published in March of this year), as noted in prior DRA blog posts, was of a two-year study of the lower Deschutes River. The purpose of the report was to determine the magnitude of biological changes in the river due to the implementation of surface water withdrawal at Round Butte Dam. A baseline study was conducted in 1999-2001, which Portland General Electric (PGE) summarized in a report published in 2002.

Both studies were contracted and paid for by PGE and were a requirement of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license to operate the Pelton-Round Butte dams.

The water quality data from the most recent study can be found on pages 47 and 48 of the 2014-2015 report. The results document violations of the basin and statewide water quality standards in both years of the study. The most egregious violations were of the pH standard as established in Oregon Administrative Rules (OARs) 340-041-0021 and 340-041-0135. The Deschutes Basin Standard for pH is a maximum pH of 8.5. A pH of 7.0 is neutral (neither acid nor alkaline, greater than 7 is alkaline).

The authors attempt to diminish these violations by noting on page 46 of the report that, “Regarding the unusually high pH measurements taken in Spring 2015, since these are uniformly high, even in the reference sites, it is highly likely that the meter we used was off in its calibration. Therefore, any in situ measurements taken should be considered preliminary at best, and compared to official measurements taken by PGE or agencies.”

There are many problems with this statement.

R2 Resource Consultants are self-proclaimed experts in water quality monitoring and modeling, so one has to wonder how and why they would be unable to produce accurate water quality data? Why would they have calibration problems? If their equipment wasn’t functioning properly, why wouldn’t they use backup pH measuring equipment? If they didn’t have backup equipment, why couldn’t they borrow equipment or have it shipped in via overnight express? The pH measurement problems they most specifically refer to occurred over several days in April of 2015. That should have been enough time to correct any equipment problems.

There were also very high pH measurements in the three days of sampling in April/May of 2014 (10 out of 12 lower Deschutes River sites were above the 8.5 pH water quality standard). Were their instruments faulty then too?

Or is this an attempt to discard and disregard data that are indicative of water quality problems?

There is another potential reason that the high pH values were recorded during spring sampling in both years. When algae bloom, it increases pH. It does this by absorbing CO2 from water to conduct photosynthesis. The by-products of photosynthesis are sugar and oxygen. Notably, the dissolved oxygen levels on the dates of the high pH levels were also high, with dissolved oxygen saturation levels reaching up to 138%. This occurs when there is excessive algal growth.

We have noted extensive algae growth in the lower river this year, starting in February. We have also recorded pH levels of greater than 9 in April and May 2016.

Algae, early March 2016. One mile below Pelton-Round Butte Reregulating Dam.

Algae, late March 2016. One mile below Pelton-Round Butte Reregulating Dam.

We are troubled by the lack of explanation for R2’s “calibration problem(s).” It is standard procedure to have a quality control plan that includes details for meter calibration and procedures if they fail calibration. At the DRA, we maintain a log for each instrument we own. Recorded in each of these logs are the calibration dates, times and results. All instruments are calibrated before each day of water quality sampling. We carry backup equipment.

In the case of our in-river dwelling data instrument, once a month we perform “field audits” where we cross check the data it produces with independent meters and manual techniques. We cross check the performance of our meters.

We have such a stringent quality control program because two of our field staff worked for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) for decades, doing water quality work. We exercise the same quality control methodology that ODEQ uses. We would suggest that PGE require the same of contractors doing water quality work.

DRA water quality staff at work:

Larry Marxer measuring dissolved oxygen in river water, using the Winkler method.

Rick Hafele doing water quality measurements on Lake Billy Chinook.

Greg McMillan going old school on water quality measurements in 1979 (when old school was just school, or maybe pre-school).


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