What's at the bottom of the Deschutes River?

July 7, 2018
What's at the bottom of the Deschutes River?

Over the past decade, floating the Deschutes River from Riverbend Park to Mirror Pond in Bend has evolved into a massive activity that attracts a quarter of a million people every summer.

But the stream of river-­goers are floating, paddling or kayaking just above a graveyard of lost or discarded items: beer bottles, sunglasses, car keys and other wayward possessions. While the debris has done little to impact water quality in that stretch of the river, which remains among the highest in Oregon, some experts are worried about the long-term effects of the clutter on the river ecosystem.

“It’s really more about stewardship and the extent to which we want to keep our river clean,” said Ryan Houston, executive director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council.

Floating the Deschutes River attracts tourists and locals alike. The Bend Park & Recreation District estimates at least 250,000 floated the river last year, making it one of Bend’s most popular summertime activities. Houston said the true total could be upwards of 300,000.

“If you think about even one percent of people dropping a bottle, or dropping a cell phone, that’s a lot of garbage,” he said.

The volume of trash appears to be increasing alongside the volume of people. Each year, the watershed council coordinates a cleanup of the Deschutes River, partnering with Central Oregon Diving to retrieve debris from the river bottom.

Kolleen Miller, education director for the watershed council, said the event began 22 years ago and initially focused mainly on cleaning up weeds along the banks of the river. In recent years, however, the event has focused more on cleaning out the bottom of the most popular stretch of the river, in part because there’s been more and more trash.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in the last few years,” Miller said.

Miller said divers found exactly one ton of trash and lost items sitting at the bottom of the river between the Bill Healy Bridge and Mirror Pond — enough to fill 70 large black trash bags.

“If we didn’t do this, the river would fill up with garbage,” she said.

She added that the most common items found in the river are sunglasses and flip-flops, which are typically brought along for the ride but can easily fall into the river. Still, more valuable items like cell phones and wallets are often found on the bottom of the river, along with a handful of wedding rings. Several bicycles have wound up in the river as well, Miller said.

Every so often, the cleanup reveals some unique treasures. Years ago, the event uncovered a locked safe in the river near Cline Falls, Miller said. It turned out to be empty.

Last year divers found a canoe, which had been lost several weeks earlier, sitting at the bottom of the river. Miller said it took five divers working together to remove the canoe.

Despite the debris and human activity, there’s little reason to fear for the overall water quality in the area. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality produces a water quality index, based on eight water quality variables, including bacteria levels, water temperature and the amount of dissolved oxygen in the river, to provide an overall look at the water quality in different parts of Oregon’s watersheds, according to Dan Brown, natural resources specialist for the environmental agency.

Based on the metric, the monitoring site at Mirror Pond was tied for the highest water quality score in the Deschutes Basin in 2017, and was among the highest statewide. Of the eight variables included in the index, the only one to rate as poor is the phosphorus level in the area, which Brown said may have to do with the presence of fertilizer from nearby Drake Park.

“A lot of phosphorus, nitrogen comes from parks,” Brown said.

He added that phosphorus levels appear to be improving and should be no cause for concern for floaters in the area.

Houston said the debris in the river likely doesn’t impact fish in the river directly, though some of the environmental changes can harm invertebrates. More concerning, he said, is the decline of riverside vegetation in areas where floaters enter the river using unauthorized user trails. Houston said riverside vegetation has a vital role in filtering out dangerous chemicals in stormwater runoff.

“Nature does a great job of filtering the river if we let it,” he said.

Miller added that the volume of sunscreen used by floaters could potentially impact the pH balance of the river, and she recommended that people using the river utilize environmentally friendly sunscreen.

“You can just see the sheen on the river,” Miller said.

While rare, dangerous objects can end up in the river. Bill Smith, developer of the Old Mill District who jointly owns the land underneath Mirror Pond, noted that a piece of barbed wire was once found on a dam and cautioned rivergoers to wear shoes whenever floating the river.

The annual river cleanup will be held on July 28, and Miller said the organization is looking for volunteers with canoes, kayaks or paddleboards to help divers pull debris from the water.

“We’re hoping we actually pull out less garbage this year,” she said.

—Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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