Gene H. McIntyre lives in Keizer. He shares his opinion frequently in the Keizertimes.
Gene H. McIntyre
February 22, 2020 at 11:00am
Radon gas has become a concern since its presence in quantity was first detected and that’s because it can—and often does—result in cancers, sometimes fatal.
Radon’s origin is the decay of radioactive elements found in soil and rock. Radon gas presents itself in human areas through the air we breathe as well as underground and surface water. Radon gas naturally occurs throughout the world and has been commonly found in Oregon, including where we live, here in the mid-Willamette Valley.
Additionally, we now learn that Oilfield Waste Logistic of Culbertson, Mont., has delivered to Arlington, Oregon, illegally dumped disposal of radioactive fracking waste at a chemical landfill there. And to date, with possibly more on the way, they’ve been unloading their toxic brew by misrepresenting it to the depths of 2 million pounds of radioactive waste. The documentation submitted reads that such material cannot legally be disposed of in Oregon, say officials with the nuclear safety division at the Oregon Department of Energy.
However, according to reports on the violation, the landfill operator in Gilliam County, Chemical Waste Management, is not facing any consequences by penalty of fine or otherwise. The 2 million pounds of radioactive material from Bakken oil fields in Canada’s Manitoba and Saskatchewan provinces as well as Montana and North Dakota, includes highly contaminated filters, tank sludge and slurry from drilling pipes transported to Oregon aboard unmarked railcars over the last three years with the “door open” apparently for more to come without the imposition of consequences or immediate removal of what’s already been delivered.
The Chemical Waste people report that Oilfield Waste Logistics did not truthfully describe the waste shipped to Oregon along with the disturbing fact that Chemical Waste also did not send samples to an independent technical expert for analysis prior to accepting it. Chemical Waste says they’ll work with the Oregon Department of Energy which sounds like a-day-late-and-a-dollar-short scenario as wimpy and irresponsible as anyone could dream up and expect publicly acceptable.
Meanwhile, no one is being punished or forced by law or contractual obligation to correct what’s been done and those persons, apparently, who are twiddling their thumbs and generally ignoring this abomination, including Gov. Kate Brown and our legislators who are busy again fighting over carcinogenic emissions by a cap and trade law by which the Republican, once again, are threatening to walk out of the capitol and hide away like a collection of over-stimulated kindergarteners protecting their no-controls, benefactor-provided “candy” supply.
So this collection of toxins from the devil’s kitchen sits and rots, spewing its cancer-causing agents into Oregon’s air and ground/surface water throughout the state, including the Columbia River. Then, also, there’s the exposure to anyone living nearby, tourists, commercial transports on I-84, general commerce, the dams and recreation.
This huge dump of toxins and carcinogens is an example of the result of the removal of regulations by the current federal administration. Regulations for safeguarding the public are going away. Business and industry are free to pollute and expose to health and life-threatening conditions, the lives of our children, our workers and the general citizenry. An opportunity to end the recklessness now underway rests with the American people in early November, 2020.
Deschutes River Habitat Conservation Plan comments
The following are comments on the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) are submitted on behalf of Restore Our Deschutes (ROD). The main problem with the HCP is that its starting assumptions are backward. The plan is designed primarily to protect the economic interests of irrigators and only secondarily the ecological integrity of the Deschutes River and associated tributaries.
The Deschutes River is one of the most important waterways in the West. It once had some of the purest water and the most even flow of any major river in the West. The Deschutes is a designated a state and federal Wild and Scenic River. I wish to point out that this is more than regional interest. The Deschutes flows through Forest Service and BLM lands; thus, the ecological function and health of the Deschutes River are of national interest. And the FWS must consider the broader state and civic interests of all citizens.
In its original condition, the Deschutes provided habitat for many species, though today, due to irrigation withdrawals and flow changes, many species including Oregon spotted frog, bull trout as well as steelhead, chinook salmon and sockeye salmon are endangered or exist at far lower populations than otherwise would occur.
However, it is essential to note that the ecological degradation of the river affects more than endangered species. A reduction in fish populations reduces food for everything from bald eagle and osprey to river otter and mink. If it also has economic consequences for other commercial interests. For instance, if the Deschutes were returned to its original condition, the resulting fisheries would be world-class. They would support a fishing industry of much higher economic value than using the Deschutes River water for the growth of low-value crops like hay.
The main problem is that irrigation degrades the river channel and hydrological function, destroying the ecological integrity of the waterway. High flows in the Upper Deschutes in summer has turned the river into nothing more than an irrigation canal, with the result of more significant bank erosion. Meanwhile, restricted flows in winter harm fish and channel integrity, subjecting it to freeze-thaw abrasion.
Why should irrigators be permitted to degrade this public resource with immunity? If I were to dump sediments into the river or I were to kill fish, I would be fined or even thrown in jail. But irrigators are permitted to kill tens of thousands of fish annually with immunity. Where are the ethics in that?
But it is more than ethnics. The law clearly says that the public interest has primary interest over the interests of any secondary uses like irrigation. The HCP should consider the overall value of an intact river vs. the ecosystem value of any commodity production by irrigation.
The most crucial function of any conservation plan should be restoring the ecological role. All other uses should be secondary. The water in the Deschutes River belongs to the citizens of the state of Oregon. And to the degree that any withdrawals occur, they should only be permitted if they do not compromise the ecological integrity of the river.
Under Oregon law, all water is publicly owned. With some exceptions, cities, irrigators, businesses, and other water users must obtain a permit or license from the Water Resources Department to use water from any source – whether it is underground, or from lakes or streams. Generally speaking, landowners with water flowing past, through, or under their property do not automatically have the right to use that water without authorization from the Department. https://www.oregon.gov/owrd/programs/WaterRights/Pages/default.aspx
According to Oregon law, if a river is capable in its natural state of being used for purposes of commerce such as floating logs to a mill, as in the case of the Deschutes, it is navigable. It becomes in law a public river or highway.
As noted by Robin Kundis Craig in the Ecology Law Journal, “The severe restriction on the power of the state as trustee to modify water resources is predicated not only upon the importance of the public use of such waters and lands, but upon the exhaustible and irreplaceable nature of the resources and its fundamental importance to our society and our environment. These resources, after all, can only be spent once. Therefore, the law has historically and consistently recognized that rivers and estuaries, once destroyed or diminished, may never be restored to the public and, accordingly, has required the highest degree of protection from the public trustee.”https://www.law.berkeley.edu/files/CLEE/Sevens_19EnvtlL605_PublicTrustInstreamUses.pdf
Oregon’s Water Rights Act explicitly acknowledges the public trust doctrine and prohibits instream water rights from diminishing public rights in waters under that doctrine. Clearly then, the on-going degradation of the Deschutes River by irrigators is illegal. In a way, the proposed HCP is thus illegal because it permits the on-going deterioration of the river, giving priority to the private commercial interests over the public interest.
OR. REV. STAT., Chapter 537: Water Rights Act. “All water within the state from all sources of water supply belongs to the public,” including groundwater. The Act allows for instream water rights for public uses, and public uses include but are not limited to recreation, “conservation, maintenance, and enhancement of aquatic and fish life, wildlife, fish and wildlife habitat, and any other ecological values,” pollution abatement, and navigation. In addition, “[p]ublic uses are beneficial uses,” but “[t]he recognition of an in-stream water right . .. shall not diminish the public’s rights.
This is an important qualification. Any use of water like irrigation cannot diminish the public’s rights to instream flows and must be adequate to maintain aquatic ecosystems and other ecological values.
As a result, the state of Oregon has a public trust responsibility to protect the river’s ecological integrity.
The proposed stream flows in the HCP are inadequate to protect the river’s ecosystem and dependent species, thus a violation of the public trust obligation of the state (and by extension the federal government) to protect the public’s interest in intact and ecologically functioning rivers.
Before major withdrawals, the Deschutes flow used to average between 700 and 800 CFS. Anything less than 600 CFS is likely not even to approach the historical conditions.
The HCP calls for restoring some water flow to the river, which is an improvement over the current situation; however, the time frame is totally unacceptable. The target winter flows of 400 CFS are inadequate and are not even reached for 30 years. The HCP should require restoration of winter flows of 600-700 CFS within five years. Further delays do not work for the imperiled species.
The HCP should examine the irrigation uses of water. Most of the water is used for irrigated pasture and hay production. Does it make sense to compromise the ecological function of the Deschutes River to produce agricultural crops that can be produced elsewhere without irrigation?
According to a report by Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, there are seven irrigation districts that divert water from the Deschutes River. They serve 123,334 acres of cropland, pasture, and residential landscapes in the Upper Deschutes River Basin. The two largest irrigation districts are the Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID), located primarily in Deschutes County, and the North Unit Irrigation District (NUID), located in Jefferson County. Together, the two irrigation districts account for nearly 84 percent of all water diverted from the Deschutes River. (Agriculture and Irrigation in Oregon’s Deschutes and Jefferson Counties, Headwaters Economics). The other five irrigation districts include Arnold, Lone Pine, Swalley, Tumalo, and Walker Basin irrigation districts, which collectively irrigate less than 20,000 acres of farmland in Deschutes County.
By 2012, Deschutes County reported 1,025 irrigated farms, and Jefferson County reported 304 irrigated farms. These farms use the bulk of all water taken from the Deschutes River. Much of it for irrigated pasture and hay production. Indeed, much of the annual output of the hay/alfalfa is exported out of the basin, even to China, so we are, in effect, “exporting” the Deschutes River water from the river ecosystem for private profit.
Indeed, according to Headwaters Economic about 44% of the irrigated acres in Deschutes County is pasture, while 56% is irrigated cropland (primarily hay). Only 239 irrigated acres of specialty crops are grown in Deschutes County annually. In Jefferson County 90.1% is irrigated cropland, but only 13,000 irrigated acres are especially crops. (Headwaters Economics 2017).
However, even these crops are not necessarily crops that can’t be raised elsewhere without irrigation.
Most farms in Deschutes County are “hobby farms,” where people have 5-10 acres in a pasture to raise a few horses or some llamas. One study indicated that one-third of the total irrigated acreage in Deschutes County was on farms between 10 and 50 acres in size. According to the Census of Agriculture, out of 1238 farms that existed in 2012, only 173 earned more than $20,000. In reality, the number of farms that actually have economic viability is small– only 31 earned more than $100,000.
I recognize this is a value judgment, but the underlying assumption of the HCP appears to be that irrigators use and farms must be protected a value judgment as well.
However, one is in line with the public trust obligation to protect the ecological function of the river, while the other is a judgment to protect economic users over the ecological integrity of the river. The state and the federal government must protect the interests of all citizens, not just local commercial interests like Ag irrigation users.
Even the vegetable crops that are produced are not particularly unique. Every crop grown with the Deschutes River water like carrot seeds can be produced elsewhere without irrigation. From any rational examination, using scarce water from the Deschutes River to grow crops in the desert that can be produced elsewhere without irrigation makes no sense.
By contrast, restoring the ecological function of the Deschutes River has tremendous non-agricultural economic value. For instance, non-labor income, or investment, retirement, social security, medical payments, and other transfer payments were more than $3.3 billion in 2014 and accounted for about half of the total income in Deschutes County. Non-labor income includes retirement funds, royalty payments, and other sources that result from investments.
One must ask why do all these people “choose” to live in Deschutes County. I would maintain much has to do with the surrounding beauty of the region’s natural landscape. And part of this landscape is the Deschutes River. Restoring the river’s ecological function would add significantly to the overall natural values of the region.
One solution would be to buy out farms just as there is a voluntary buyout of grazing allotments on public lands. A voluntary buyout could permanently restore water to the river and also reduce all the collateral damage that results from agriculture production, including the pollution of the lower Deschutes River with pesticides, fertilizers, sedimentation, and other consequences of the agricultural output.
However, the bottom line is that putting the interests of irrigators and farmers ahead of the interests of all citizens, including the national interest, is not acceptable.
The FWS must put the protection of the Deschutes River ecological integrity and function ahead of economic interests. The FWS must remember that it is working on behalf of all citizens, and even more important it is working for all the creatures whose voices are not being heard.
RESTORE OUR DESCHUTES
Bend, OR 97708
This is my 50th year farming in Madras. I’m the son of an Idaho farmer who came to the North Unit Irrigation District (NUID) in 1948. Father took the first delivery of water on the Agency Plains north of Madras in June of 1948 after the Willow Creek siphon was repaired. He was always concerned if NUID would have enough water to raise the crops in all years.
NUID is the second largest irrigation district in Oregon and is junior to the other seven Deschutes Basin irrigation districts. NUID’S 1916 water rights were the last issued and received the smallest per acre allotment. With the best elevation and climate Madras farms have raised the highest economic value crops in Central Oregon: ladino clover, potatoes, grass seed, peppermint, garlic seed, alfalfa, fresh radish, onion and carrot seed.
Now, because of the drought and spotted frog augmented flows, junior North Unit District Irrigation is suffering the most. Our Wickiup Reservoir failed to fill, and our board has set this year’s allotment at 18 inches on Deschutes acres and nine inches on Crooked River rights. While other districts within the basin with 72-inch allotments will receive normal deliveries (equivalent to 72” of rain delivered in the six month irrigation season). It takes at a minimum of over 30 inches to grow most crops.
My farm, like many of my neighbors, must idle crop ground. I have 578.1 acres with water rights and will fallow 182.3 acres or 31.5% of my cropland. However, I paid for the full allotment of $43,112.91. Competing in a world market makes this unsustainable.
For the greatest agricultural economy in Central Oregon to continue to thrive several changes must take place.
Oregon water law must be amended to allow intra-district transfers of abundant water from upstream districts to NUID. One acre of Deschutes County districts’ water will water 3 acres in Jefferson County.
Beneficial use is when water is used for agriculture. When watered cropland becomes urbanized those water rights should go to the junior water right holders as the law was intended, and not held solely for power generation or revenue producing via instream leasing.
Water diversion from storage in NUID’s Wickiup Reservoir to meet “The Habitat Conservation Plan” must be realistic. Considering factors as the drought that NUID has been facing, as well as timelines for completing conservation practices. Continued stored water takings will be catastrophic for NUID’s farmers and its community.
The goal of The Coalition for the Deschutes, lawmakers, and Oregon Water Resources on conserving water in the Deschutes Basin is a priority. It can only happen when those districts with the greatest potential to conserve water do so, and money that is needed to complete those projects is available. Today, funding is a challenge and takes time.
Water is precious and costly for Madras North Unit farmers. We have implemented: 24-hour water measurement and delivery, tail water recovery, gated pipe, ditch piping, low pressure pivots and drip irrigation. As the frog and upper Deschutes instream flow requirements increase, all districts must conserve and share the burden.
Should Jefferson County farmers be the only irrigators to suffer because of the frog? “Junior” does mean junior; but what business can take a 25-30% reduction in its income stream and survive? Our seed warehouses, fertilizer and equipment dealers, our employees, plus Madras and Culver retailers also have a stake in the game. Saving the basin for frogs, fish and environmental concerns can’t be just about NUID. It is about everyone in the basin sharing for the greater good and changing their past ways. Water is recognized as the life blood that benefits agriculture, which in turn provides for wildfire buffers, wildlife habitat and helps the environment. The choice is farms versus houses and urban sprawl.
Junior Water Right holder, but hopeful.
— Gary Harris is a Madras farmer, current Jefferson County Farm Bureau vice president and served on the Land Conservation and Development Commission from 1996-2004.
PRINEVILLE, Ore. (AP) — Apple has pledged to spend nearly $9 million to help the city of Prineville build an underground water storage facility to help meet the demands of the company’s two data storage centers there.
Apple is Prineville’s largest water user and takes huge volumes of water to cool their facilities, where computers are in constant danger of overheating, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported Wednesday.
It’s Apple’s second water conservation project in Prineville. Its first data center consumed 27 million gallons of water in 2016, based on the most recent data available, and the company has added a second large facility since then.
Prineville, with about 10,000 residents, produces 600 million gallons a year. City officials could not say how much water Apple used last year but suggested it could be approaching 10 percent of Prineville’s total production.
The project will collect water in natural underground geologic formations during cool periods and when river levels are high and then tap into it when needed. It will serve both Apple data centers and Prineville’s general needs.
Lisa Jackson, the Apple vice president who runs the company’s environmental initiatives, said the Prineville project will support the company’s own needs “while increasing the availability of clean, sustainable water as the community prepares for the impacts of climate change.”
Prineville gets its water from deep wells; this project will bring water up from shallow wells, too, storing them in an aquifer near Apple’s data center when demand is low and tapping them when demand rises in the summer heat.
The new aquifers will be available beginning in 2021. Prineville said it has been studying the project for five years and believes it could store as much as 180 million gallons initially, and up to 400 million gallons with additional wells.
In 2016, Apple financed construction of a water treatment facility designed to save 5 million gallons annually by recycling water from the city’s sewage treatment system and using it in the data center.
Apple has spent $1 billion building its 660,000-square-foot Prineville facilities and is in the process of expanding by 50 percent. Its data centers employ 100 people altogether, according to Apple, which has said it offsets the effects of its power use with nearby solar and wind projects.
Facebook has a large complex of data centers just up the road. It draws water from wells separate from the city’s water system.
Both companies chose Prineville because of low land costs and cool desert night air to chill the data centers’ computers.
Most Central Oregon residents are aware that the Deschutes River is severely compromised. However, the public is not getting all the information needed to make intelligent choices about the Deschutes River.
Some 90 percent of the water withdrawn from the Deschutes River is for irrigation. By comparison, all industry and municipal withdrawals amount to 5 percent. In other words, if the only withdrawals were for cities like Bend, the Deschutes would still be a functioning river.
As a result of agriculture withdrawals, the historic flow of the river of around 700 cubic feet per second is sometimes reduced to a shocking trickle of 20 cubic feet per second with serious consequences for the aquatic life dependent on continuous flows.
What the irrigators don’t want the public to know is that all water in Oregon is publicly owned.
Indeed, an article in the Law Journal confirms this public ownership. The Oregon Supreme Court “maintains that Oregon’s public trust doctrine is grounded on public ownership of natural resources held in trust by the state in sovereign ownership. The state has always claimed ownership of water and wildlife within the state, so the courts should recognize both as public trust resources.”
What we see with regards to the Deschutes River is a failure of the state to preserve the public’s ownership and protection of our water and river system.
Why is this important? Because irrigators are removing water from the Deschutes River that belongs to all Oregonians and using that water — for which they pay nothing — for their private profit.
The term “water right” is thrown around all the time. Do not be misled by the term “water right.” In reality, we are talking about “water privileges.”
Irrigators have no legal right to our water. What a “water right” addresses is who gets water and how much if, and only if, the public decides to allow water withdrawals for “beneficial uses.” The public can redefine what is “beneficial.”
We can decide that keeping our water in the Deschutes River for fish, frogs, recreation, scenic, watershed and other values is a higher use of this water than growing low-value crops like hay in the desert that can easily be produced elsewhere without draining our rivers.
For nearly a century, the public has never challenged the idea that our water can be removed from our rivers for free by irrigators.
But the Deschutes Basin Study, a collaborative heavily stacked with irrigation districts, suggests options: that we must pay to “lease” our water so we can put some back in the river or alternatively, taxpayers are asked to pay for things like piping or more efficient irrigation equipment (which by the way enhances the value of the farms and ranches who participate) so that we get back some of our water back in the river.
In an effort to partially repair the damage done by water withdrawals, the Basin Study proposes the option of spending perhaps as much as $1 billion dollars of taxpayer funds so that irrigators can continue to produce about $10 million in crops annually. Mind you, even if we expend this money, we will not be getting the full historic flows back in the river. So, the river system will still be degraded.
In the case of the Deschutes River, we are being asked to give away OUR water to irrigation districts for FREE, and use it for their profit, while the public is left with a degraded river and the bill for this proposal. This is a classic case of privatize profits and socialize costs.
The philosophical question that should be asked is why anyone should have the “right” to damage and impoverish public waterways for their personal profit. Ultimately this is the issue at hand, and so far, the Basin Study is refusing to ask that question.
— George Wuerthner is an ecologist and author of numerous books. He lives in Bend.
A court ruling requiring officials to pass more water through the spillways of eight federal dams to aid migrating salmon and steelhead, rather than using the water to produce electricity, could increase monthly bills for Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative customers for part of the year.
The decision Monday by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affects four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington and four on the Columbia River.
The release of water started Tuesday at the Snake River dams, and will start April 10 at the Columbia River dams.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which operates all the dams, already boosts water flows through the impoundments during the spring and summer to aid fish, some of which are threatened or endangered, as they migrate to the Pacific Ocean.
Conservation groups have advocated for the tactic of diverting more water over the dams because they say that’s less likely to kill young salmon and steelhead than directing the water, and some of the fish, through the dams’ power-producing turbines.
Last spring U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon ruled that the Corps of Engineers must spill more water between April and mid-June.
The Corps of Engineers appealed Simon’s ruling, but on Monday the Appeals Court panel upheld the judge’s decision.
The Appeals Court judges cited studies showing that more fish survive when more water is spilled over dams.
The potential effect for OTEC customers has to do with the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the federal agency that sells power produced at the dams.
OTEC buys about 99.5 percent of its electricity from BPA, said Anthony Bailey, the cooperative’s chief financial officer (OTEC buys a negligible amount of power from a hydroelectric plant near Cove).
In a press release Monday, BPA said the Appeals Court decision “creates a new multimillion dollar obligation for the region’s ratepayers.”
Agency officials have previously estimated that the increased spring water spills could cost $40 million per year.
“And that’s not just a one-time shot,” Bailey said. “It could continue for several years.”
Bailey said BPA likely will recoup its costs by adding a surcharge to the bills for its wholesale customers, including OTEC.
BPA has estimated that OTEC’s surcharge would be about $450,000 per year, and that the amount would be collected from May through September annually.
Bailey said BPA could start assessing the surcharge as soon as this May.
Although OTEC’s board of directors will make the final decision, Bailey said it’s “more than likely” that the cooperative would have to pass on the BPA surcharge to its approximately 23,000 members in Baker, Union, Grant and Harney counties.
If so, OTEC likely would follow BPA’s system and add a seasonal surcharge to customers’ bills from May through September, Bailey said. He estimated the surcharge at about $2 per month for residential customers.
“BPA could handle this differently, but right now that’s how we see this happening,” Bailey said.
Opposition to the court-ordered increase in water releases from the dams is based on both economic and environmental matters, Bailey said.
As to the latter, he said that depending on the volume of the spring snowmelt runoff, and its timing, the increased spills could reduce BPA’s power generation so that it needs to replace that electricity, potentially with sources that burn fossil fuels and thus release carbon.
Yet Bailey points out that many Democrats in the Oregon Legislature, as well as Gov. Kate Brown, have advocated for instituting a tax on carbon emissions even as the state government has endorsed the increased water releases from the dams.
Bailey said it seems to him contradictory for Oregon officials to promote a change in dam operations that could lead to an increased reliance on burning fossil fuels.
The most recent forecasts call for higher than average spring runoffs — 16 percent above average for the Columbia River Basin, and 10 percent above average for the Snake River Basin.
Bailey also noted that some opponents of the court-mandated spills contend that the change will imperil migrating salmon and steelhead by increasing the amount of dissolved oxygen and nitrogen in the rivers below the dams.
High levels of dissolved gases in the water can kill fish.
BEND, Ore. – The Deschutes River is a vital part of life here in Central Oregon.
From recreational activities to agricultural benefits to environmental impacts, the water that flows through the river sustains life.
A study is being done to determine just how best to conserve the river, and now organizations are coming together to protect it.
The $1.5 million study of the river has been going on for over two years.
The idea behind the study is to take into account and try to balance the needs of agricultural irrigators, the environment and the community.
Craig Horrell, general manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District, said Monday it’s important to have all concerned parties at the table to discuss the future of the Deschutes River.
“What we are trying to do is find where we can be more efficient in irrigation, and be more efficient to put water back into the river,” Horrell said. “What we are looking for is any and every method to help our water shortages.”
So far, the study has revealed some tools and information for stakeholders to utilize in order to keep as much water in the river as possible.
An open house was held Monday afternoon in Sunriver for the public to review the findings.
Those involved in the study say they have found ways to help conserve water that will have a positive impact on irrigation districts, the environment and the communities surrounding the Deschutes.
Mike Relf, a project manager with the fedeal Bureau of Reclamation, attributes that to people who are able to come together for a common cause.
“What we have seen in a lot of locations, historically, is that when water needs compete with each other, it’s hard to really productively reach solutions,” Relf said. “And in this case, with all the different stakeholders trying to work together and find a way to meet everyone’s needs, that’s a better way forward.”
Many local farmers depend on the river for its water, and animals and fish depend on the river to stay alive.
That’s where the the Deschutes River Conservancy comes in, working to make sure there is enough water to go around for all users.
Kate Fitzpatrick is the program director for the organization, and she is encouraged by what the study has shown so far. She hopes that an open dialogue regarding the concerns of the river will continue.
“Everybody wants to see it improve, everybody from farmers in Jefferson County to environmentalists in Bend. So I think there has been a frustration that, ‘Oh we’re studying it! We’re working together, be patient,’” Fitzpatrick said. “I think people want to see some action. We’re seeing that happen.”
The study is expected to wrap up this year, and Fitzpatrick is hopeful that after the open houses, the public will be able to be more involved in the process and decision-making on water conservation issues.
Another open house takes place Tuesday evening in Madras at 5:30 p.m. at the Inn at Cross Keys Station.
A3-inch fish that has slowly infiltrated the Deschutes Basin over the past few decades could prove key to understanding the impact of pollution in Central Oregon’s waterways.
“They’re beloved, they’re widespread, they’re easy to relate to and they can tell us a lot about water quality,” said Ann Petersen, a biology professor at Oregon State University-Cascades.
Building off work that began during her time at the University of Oregon, Petersen spearheaded The Stickleback Project, a lab focusing on a common species of fish known as threespine stickleback, after arriving in Bend in 2015. Because the fish are well-studied by researchers and have comparatively similar organ structures and reproductive cycles to humans, stickleback are often used by researchers as a “sentinel species,” an organism that can be used to model potential risks to humans.
Because the fish exist in large numbers throughout the Upper Deschutes, Petersen and her students are studying stickleback populations at seven different locations along the river, as a way to determine whether the fish are impacted by pollutants in the river that could also affect humans.
“The Deschutes River is just chock-full of stickleback,” Petersen said. “It’s kind of a living lab.”
If the hypothesis is proved correct, researchers looking at stickleback could detect high levels of pollutants in the river with significantly less cost and effort than by constantly measuring water quality.
On Tuesday, Petersen will lead a sold-out presentation for the public on the lab’s work on stickleback, and how the research can be extended to the rest of Oregon’s waterways.
“Can we use the stickleback in the Deschutes as a canary in a coal mine?” Petersen said.
Not only does Petersen’s lab provide information about the environmental health of the river, but it also gives undergraduate students at OSU-Cascades experience with graduate-level work that can give them a leg up when applying to other programs.
“It’s given me the opportunity to learn a lot more than I would in a classroom,” said Anthony Brande, a junior at OSU-Cascades who is taking the lab.
Threespine stickleback are found across the Northern Hemisphere, from Japan to Alaska. Petersen said the species is popular in England, in part because of the elaborate mating dances that males use to attract females to their nests.
Stickleback are found off the Oregon coast, and in the Willamette and Mackenzie rivers, but hadn’t been spotted in the Deschutes Basin prior to the 1990s. Twenty years ago, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist described the small fish as taking over Crane Prairie Reservoir in the upper Deschutes, possibly brought there by an angler, according to The Bulletin’s archives.
While Petersen said a disease lowered the population in the reservoir since then, the species has proliferated in other parts of the upper and middle segments of the Deschutes River.
While they’ve spread throughout the river system over the course of decades, Petersen said individual fish most likely stay in the same basic stretch of river, which would mean that they reflect the effects of chemicals and pollutants in a particular portion of a river.
According to a 2016 report from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, 18 individual pollutants were found in the watershed two years prior, including herbicides and pesticides associated with agriculture.
Petersen said additional pollutants found in the river come from plastic liners, and the confluence of the Little Deschutes River and the Deschutes River has been a source of pollutants in the past.
She said that several of the pollutants found in the water are known to affect the endocrine system, which includes the thyroid and the pancreas, and utilizes the liver, kidney and gonads. The pollutants, Petersen said, could cause liver disease and other ailments.
“They may be part of, truly, an emerging health crisis around the world,” she added.
To study the fish, the team will place baited minnow traps at seven locations along the upper and middle Deschutes, along with a control population in Tumalo Creek. Once the fish swim into the trap, they’re anesthetized and brought into the lab, where they’re dyed and examined under a microscope.
While Petersen cautioned that the lab’s work remains based on a hypothesis, the differences between a tissue sample from a fish that lived in a polluted area of the river compared to the control population are visible even to the untrained eye. The liver of a fish in an area with known pollutants had significantly more white fat cells, suggesting the possibility of liver disease. Petersen said other impacts to fish include changes to thyroids, reproductive abnormalities and occasional tumors.
For students, the lab provides an opportunity to work on a project that might otherwise be reserved for graduate students. Deidre Heil, a senior taking part in the lab, said she anticipates that having this type of lab experience will give her a leg up when applying for a Ph.D. program.
“It gave me a background, and the skills that I needed to apply for that program,” Heil said.
Ideally, the lab will expand its research to examine stickleback populations in other rivers in Central and Eastern Oregon. Peterson said a small handful of the fish have been found in the John Day River.
Additionally, Heil recently received a fellowship from the nonprofit Central Oregon Flyfishers to determine if stickleback living in the Crooked River are affected. Heil will try to trap and study 50 stickleback from four sites along the river.
“I’m basically doing a masters program in an undergraduate program,” Heil said.
A project intended to improve conditions for endangered fish could mean essentially emptying Detroit Lake for one or two years.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is planning to build a 300-foot tower and floating screen at Detroit Dam to improve water temperature and fish passage for salmon and steelhead in the North Santiam River.
But the $100 to $250 million project has sparked alarm over the potential impact to water supply in Salem and Stayton, for farmland irrigation, and to the economies of Detroit and the Santiam Canyon from the loss of recreation at the popular reservoir.
“In the long-term, this project has a lot of positives, from a healthier environment for fish to better operation of the dam,” Marion County commissioner Kevin Cameron said. “But there is a huge risk in the short-term.”
At its core, the project represents the latest chapter in the struggle to preserve native fish while maintaining the benefits of dams and reservoirs.
The Corps is taking public comment on the project until January 23. A meeting on the topic is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 17 at Gates Fire Hall.
The project still needs to go through multiple planning phases — including additional public comment periods — before construction is scheduled for 2021.
“The big decisions have not yet been determined — this is a first step,” Corps spokesman Tom Conning said. “That’s why we’re asking for input from the community.”
Why is this happening now?
Corps officials say they are legally required to undertake this type of project.
There are 13 dams and reservoirs in the Willamette River drainage that were built in the 1950s and ’60s, primarily for flood control, hydroelectric power, and water storage.
The dams cut off prime spawning habitat for wild steelhead and chinook salmon above the dams, while degrading the remaining habitat downstream. A steep decline in the number of wild fish led to their protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
A legal agreement was reached in 2008 called the Biological Opinion. It requires the Corps to modify dams to improve habitat for wild salmon and steelhead, even as their numbers continue to plummet.
Winter steelhead, for example, returned about 16,000 fish each year to the Upper Willamette Basin in the 1970s, according to numbers at Willamette Falls Fish Count. That number dropped to 5,200 fish per year since 2010, and only 800 returned last winter.
This year is expected to be even worse.
“We’ve reached the point where, unless we take some action, we may condemn this run to extinction,” said Dr. Shaun Clements, senior scientist and fish policy advisor for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in a story published last August.
Native winter steelhead are separate from hatchery-raised summer steelhead stocked in the North Santiam.
What are the problems with the dam?
Two steps Detroit Dam is required to take, under the Biological Opinion, are improving water temperature and fish passage into the North Santiam River.
Current releases from Detroit and Big Cliff dams are often too cold for spawning fish during the summer, and too hot in autumn, according to project documents. As a result, fish sometimes don’t spawn, or their eggs die or hatch too early.
Fish passage through Detroit Dam is also inadequate, according to the Biological Opinion. Right now, biologists trap salmon and steelhead at the Minto Fish Facility, on the North Santiam below the dams. They drive the fish above the reservoir in trucks and release them into high-quality habitat in the upper river.
The problem is that during the juvenile fish’s journey back to the ocean, they often cannot pass through the Detroit Dam. They die in turbines or simply get stuck in the reservoir.
How does this project address the problems?
The first phase of the project focuses on improving water temperature by building a tower, near Detroit Dam, that will be 250 to 300 feet tall.
Known as a “temperature control tower,” the structure would take in water from different levels of the reservoir pool, mix it together, and send it downstream at the desired temperature.
The Corps says the water temperature would stay uniform through Big Cliff Reservoir before being released into the North Santiam.
The second phase of the project would include attaching a floating structure, similar to a barge the size of a football field, with a floating screen to capture juvenile salmon and steelhead moving downstream.
After the fish were collected, they’d either be transported downstream in a bypass pipe or a truck.
Drying out Detroit Lake
The biggest concern over the project centers on building it, because it will likely require draining the reservoir close to empty for an extended period.
The Corps is considering five alternatives for construction, many of which require dropping the reservoir to 1,310 feet above sea level.
An elevation of 1,310 feet at Detroit Lake is extremely low — far lower than any boat ramp or even the low-water winter level of 1,450.
“There would still be some water coming down through existing channels, so fish would still come down,” Conning said. “But it would be dry at all boat ramps and through most of the reservoir. Any water left will be pretty hard to get to.”
Such little water being held in Detroit Lake creates a number of potential problems.
Not only would there be almost no recreation — boating, swimming, fishing. But there are also big questions about the impact to water supply in Salem and Stayton, farmland irrigation, hydroelectricity and the economic struggle in Detroit from a loss of tourism.
So, how long will it stay empty?
The biggest question is how long the Corps will keep Detroit Lake low during construction of the tower.
A similar project at Cougar Reservoir, completed a decade ago, kept the lake empty for three years. Corps officials said they’re not planning to take that long at Detroit.
“Recognizing the economic impact that would have, we understand that it’s probably not the way to do this one,” Ament said.
In planning documents, the cheapest and safest plan is keeping Detroit Lake almost empty, at 1,310 feet, for two full years. That’s “alternative 1,” with all the construction done on dry ground.
Ament said that plan isn’t a lock, and the Corps are willing to spend extra money on a project to avoid disrupting the local economy for an extended period.
That leaves four alternatives with a shorter timeline of the lake at low levels. They mostly include dropping the reservoir to 1,310 feet for one summer.
In “alternative 2,” for example, there would be one dry summer to install the tower’s foundation, while constructing the remainder under water. Another plan would use a coffer dam to protect construction. Building in the winter is another option.
Only one plan calls for normal reservoir levels throughout, but it involves building the tower completely underwater and has “high safety and implementation risks.”
City water supply and irrigation problems
The cities of Salem and Stayton, along with more than 800 farms, all get water from the North Santiam and Detroit Lake.
This project raises major concerns, Santiam Water Control district manager Brent Stevenson said.
Such a limited amount of water stored at Detroit Lake could mean conditions worse than during the 2015 drought, he said.
“In reality, what they’re proposing is almost an impossibility,” Stevenson said. “It could create severe water shortages.
“We don’t have all the information and I’m sure there would be mitigation strategies put in place. But it sets up a scenario where there’s either no water in the river for fish, or no water at all for the City of Salem, schools and a district that includes 17,000 acres of farmland.”
The City of Salem is taking the plan “very seriously” and is “carefully studying it,” city spokesman Kenny Larson said. Larson said Salem would release its comments on the project next week.
Ament said the Corps will study the requirements of cities and agriculture in the next phase of the process, an Environmental Impact Study.
“This is one of the big challenges we’re faced with,” he said. “If we have this low of a pool, can we hit these downstream targets for cities like Salem? That analysis is one of the things that comes next.”
Economic disaster in Detroit
Businesses in Detroit have survived bad years, says Paul O’Donnell, owner of Mountain High Grocery.
Dependent on summer tourism from recreation at Detroit Lake, the city has endured economic hits from drought in 2015, low water in 2016 and wildfires in 2017.
The prospect of additional summers without the lake is a terrifying prospect.
“This scares the hell out of everybody,” O’Donnell said. “We could lose businesses in Detroit, and this will hit the rest of the Santiam Canyon hard as well.”
Business owners said they could probably survive one lost summer. That’s why they’ve focused on trying to get the Corps to consider a plan that doesn’t keep the lake dry for multiple years.
“If you lose the lake for two or three years, that’s going to change people’s habit of coming out here,” O’Donnell said. “They’ll go somewhere else, like Green Peter or Foster reservoirs, fall in love with it, and never come back. It would take a long time to rebound.”
The economic hit would be wide-ranging, said Eric Page, who owns a house and vacation rental in Detroit.
“Think of the overwhelming impact: restaurants, marinas, hotels, the state park,” he said. “It’s a big hit, and I don’t feel like the Corps has shown any real concern.”
Will the project save fish?
One of the most contentious issues is whether the $100- to $250-million project will actually improve conditions for fish.
The Corps says it will, and pointed to Cougar Reservoir on the Mckenzie River as an example of success.
“When Cougar dam was built, without temperature control, no adult fish returned to the base of the dam,” Ament said.
“Once the temperatures were corrected, adult fish were spotted at the base of the dam, and a new adult collector was built that successfully collects fish.”
Other examples are less promising.
Round Butte Dam, at Lake Billy Chinook, is the subject of a lawsuit that says the withdrawal tower — the same device planned for Detroit — creates worse water quality in the Deschutes River. A judge recently allowed the lawsuit to move forward.
“It mixed together water with all these different nutrients and ended up creating problems such as algae,” said Conrad Gowell, with the Native Fish Society. “It had unintended consequences we still don’t really understand.”
Gowell said fish passage through Lake Billy Chinook has not been successful, with passage rates as low as 30 percent for chinook and 7 percent for steelhead.
There’s no reason to believe the project will be more successful at Detroit, he said.
“It’s a lot of money spent on infrastructure that comes without sufficient evidence of success,” he said.
Environmental groups have said the only way to return healthy runs is to allow fish to migrate upstream and downstream on their own volition.
“When fish are driven around a dam in the back of a repurposed septic truck, they are no longer self-sustaining,” wrote Mark Sherwood, executive director of the Native Fish Society.
How to make your voice heard
The best way to have an impact on the project, Corps officials said, is to submit substantive public comments before the January 23 deadline.
“The number of negative comments an agency receives does not prevent an action from moving forward,” said Kelly Janes, Corps Environmental Resource Specialist. “Comments that are solution oriented and provide specific examples will be more effective.”
Conning, Corps spokesman, suggested impacted businesses point out details such as how much revenue they could lose per year, how many people they’d lay off and how much they pay in taxes yearly.
“The more substantive the comments are, the more weight it will carry,” Conning said.
The Corps is currently in the earliest phase of this project. In the coming year, they’ll develop a range of alternatives using public comments, and in 2019 develop a preferred plan that will be subject again to public comment.
A decision and plans are expected around 2020 while construction would begin around 2021.
How to comment
Comments can be emailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
It can be mailed to:
Kelly Janes, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Attn: PM-E, PO Box 2946 Portland, OR 97208-2946
Meeting on project
Corps officials will be in attendance at a meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 17 at Gates Fire Hall.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors writer, photographer and videographer in Oregon for 10 years. He is the author of the book “Hiking Southern Oregon” and can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.