Guest column: Editorial on dam lawsuit missed vital context

August 14, 2018
Guest column: Editorial on dam lawsuit missed vital context

On Aug. 10, The Bulletin published an editorial applauding the U.S. District Court’s recent decision to dismiss the Deschutes River Alliance’s Clean Water Act lawsuit against Portland General Electric. Unfortunately, that editorial, in excusing ongoing exceedances of water-quality requirements at the Pelton Round Butte Hydroelectric Project, is missing some important context.

In the lead-up to construction of PGE’s selective water withdrawal tower at Round Butte Dam, the company repeatedly stated that the tower would not only return salmon and steelhead to the Upper Deschutes basin, but would also lead to compliance with all water quality standards in the river below the Pelton Round Butte project. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued a Clean Water Act certification for Pelton Round Butte based on these representations.

Now, nearly nine years after the tower began operations, PGE tells a very different story. According to statements made to the court, the company says it simply cannot manage the tower to meet fish passage objectives while ensuring these critical water quality standards are met.

Apparently this is good enough for The Bulletin’s editorial staff. It shouldn’t be. The water quality requirements that PGE says it can’t meet were developed and implemented for a specific purpose: to protect aquatic life in the Deschutes River. When these standards are not met, the river’s treasured fish, wildlife and aquatic insects suffer.

As anyone who has been on the lower river in the last nine years can tell you, it is a dramatically different place than it was before the tower was built. And it is not just the fish and wildlife that are struggling: As the recreation experience on the river has diminished, people and communities who depend on a healthy Lower Deschutes are suffering as well.

It is well past time to re-evaluate the merits of this experiment. The fish reintroduction program, while clearly well-intentioned, has generated very few returning adult salmon and steelhead each year, with little indication that these numbers will improve. In the meantime, the Lower Deschutes river — one of this country’s most spectacular rivers, and an economic driver for the entire region — has become a different place altogether. One wonders what it would take for PGE to acknowledge that this experiment is simply not working as planned.

Finally, The Bulletin’s focus on the cost of the DRA’s Clean Water Act lawsuit is curious, given the immense economic toll the construction of the SWW tower has inflicted on PGE ratepayers and the state of Oregon. This experiment has now cost ratepayers well over $130 million — significantly higher than original cost estimates. And that does not take into account the ongoing economic harm to Central Oregon communities like Maupin.

The DRA is considering all legal options as we continue our work to protect and restore the Lower Deschutes river. But one thing is certain: The Deschutes is simply too important to give up on. The DRA will keep fighting to protect water quality and aquatic life on the Lower Deschutes, on behalf of everyone who treasures this remarkable river.

— Greg McMillan is president of the Deschutes River Alliance,

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