Last June, Portland General Electric released a comprehensive, multiyear water quality study of Lake Billy Chinook, the rivers that supply it, and the lower Deschutes River into which water is released. Among other things, the report showed that the Crooked River contains significant amounts of pollution. This pollution combined with sunlight generates suspended algae on the surface of Lake Billy Chinook which is subsequently released into Lake Simtutus and then the lower Deschutes River. Algae blooms are increasing in occurrence, leading the Oregon Health Authority to warn last June that “harmful algae blooms” could “routinely develop in the lake”.
One of the shortcomings in the Habitat Conservation Plan is lack of adequate consideration for water quality. Clearly, high temperatures and pollution can have adverse impacts on fish and the aquatic environment, including mortality (“take”). Irrigation return flows are “covered activities” but the HCP does not adequately examine impacts on water quality from agricultural runoff or provide for minimum standards in covered waterways.
It is important to understand that the HCP covers the entire Deschutes Basin, anywhere there are endangered or threatened species that may be impacted from activities by one of the eight irrigation districts that make up the Deschutes Basin Board of Control as well as the City of Prineville. Covered species include steelhead, bull trout, and the Oregon Spotted Frog, as well as potentially listed chinook and sockeye salmon. Covered waterways include the upper, middle, and lower Deschutes, Whychus Creek, Crooked River, McKay Creek, Ochoco Creek, Trout Creek, etc.
To date, public discussion regarding the HCP has largely been confined to the required amount of flow, particularly in the upper Deschutes. Flow clearly plays a central role in determining temperature, more water in a river generally means cooler temperature, but pollution is another central element of water quality.
It is well known that agricultural runoff pollutes many covered waters, in particular the Crook River, McKay Creek, Ochoco Creek, Willow Creek which empties into Lake Simtustus, and Trout Creek which empties into the Lower Deschutes. Excess application of fertilizer combined with over watering creates runoff that feeds algae blooms which reduces oxygen. Pesticides and animal waste can also be present in runoff. According to the National Institute of Health, “polluted agricultural runoff is the leading source of water pollution in rivers and lakes”. Lake Billy Chinook, home to the largest population of bull trout in the state, collects most of this pollution before it is passed down to the lower Deschutes.
The Crooked River Watershed Council has data showing significant levels of pollutants, including E. coli, flowing from Ochoco Irrigation District sources into McKay and Ochoco Creeks before they empty into the Crooked River. A 2018 Oregon Department of Environmental Quality report states that the Crooked River exceeds standards for E. coli and is “degrading”. Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife data shows that Central Oregon Irrigation District return flows transfer the parasite C. shasta from the Deschutes to the Crooked. North Unit Irrigation District has return flows over the canyon wall directly into the lower Deschutes as well as via Trout Creek and its Mud Springs Creek tributary.
There is inadequate discussion of the impact of pollution from irrigation returns on covered species in the HCP. Equally important, why are irrigators taking more water out of local rivers than they need? Why is there runoff at all? Wouldn’t more efficient water delivery and application eliminate the runoff problem while allowing more water to remain in local rivers? The Basin Study Work Group showed that there are effective, lower cost ways of conserving water than currently being pursued by the irrigation districts. Some of these alternate approaches would also help reduce water pollution.