State finds "serious shortcomings" in PGE water quality report

June 7, 2016
State finds "serious shortcomings" in PGE water quality report

Deschutes River analysis draws concerns

By Hilary Corrigan

A state environmental regulatory body wants more details from Portland General Electric on its recent water quality analysis of the lower Deschutes River after finding “serious shortcomings” in the company’s report.

PGE operates a complex of dams on the Deschutes River, along with facilities meant to help fish. Those include the selective water withdrawal system at Round Butte Dam, a 273-foot underwater tower that started operating in 2009 and aims to mimic the river’s natural conditions by modifying currents and temperature. It draws both warmer surface water and colder deeper water from Lake Billy Chinook, modifying the temperature of the Deschutes River and attracting fish into a collection facility so they can be trucked around the dams in order to continue their migration.

As part of the requirements related to the 2005 license that PGE got from the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission to continue operating its complex of dams, the utility was required to complete monitoring work on aquatic insects and algae in the Deschutes after the tower started operating and to compare that data to data from before the tower started operating. Besides being food for larger organisms, those lifeforms are sensitive to water temperature changes and can help show changes in the ecosystem.

A recent study PGE commissioned found the tower “has restored a more natural temperature regime in the lower Deschutes River throughout the year.” It does that by discharging a mix of surface water and below-surface water through spring, summer and fall to better match historical temperature patterns, the report said. The report found that species abundant before the tower started operating remained abundant afterward, although it noted seasonal changes.

But the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality told PGE in a May 23 letter that it had concerns about the quality of the data and how the analysis was done. The department called for PGE to respond by June 30 to several points laid out in a memo.

Among others, those concerns include the accuracy of the data on worms both before and after the tower; a lack of data from before the tower started operating; and the fact that high alkalinity levels of the water were attributed to a meter not being calibrated correctly. The memo emphasized the importance of comparing data from before and after the tower started operating and said not managing the data so it could be compared “represents a significant failure.” The memo also noted the presence of new worms, possibly because they weren’t documented before, and wondered about the possibility of a substantial shift in the food web. One of the worms is known as a host for parasites that harm fish. Among other recommendations, the memo suggested an independent review of parts of the data.

PGE spokesman Steven Corson said the utility would review the department’s concerns and ways to address them.

“This is part of how it works,” Corson said of the process. “It requires back and forth and being willing to go back and take a second look.”

Last week, PGE notified stakeholders of the department’s concerns and noted that the utility itself had also identified more analysis to be done in order to verity or adjust conclusions.

“We want to base our decisions on the best science we have available,” Corson said.

In a notice, the Deschutes River Alliance said the tower represents the biggest human-caused change to the river in 50 years and that the impacts of that change need to be monitored closely, using appropriate methods and analysis.

“This is the only way to determine if tower operations are having harmful effects on the lower river,” the alliance said of such monitoring. The study on aquatic bugs and algae helps determine whether the tower has harmed the river’s ecology. “So the stakes are high for PGE,” the alliance stated. The alliance recently took preliminary steps toward suing PGE over water quality concerns.

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An aerial view of a body of water.