A damaged river imperils a central Oregon town

Greg McMillan
Pelton Round Butte dam

Small businesses in Maupin allege a PGE dam is ruining their livelihoods.

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John Smeraglio doesn’t see much of a future for his fly fishing store in the small town of Maupin in central Oregon.

He has run the shop, located on the Deschutes River, for 33 years. Last year, sales were down 42% on the previous year. It was the worst year for income growth in 25 years.

His business problems stem from the deteriorating condition of the lower Deschutes River, which runs directly through Maupin. Once a world-class area for salmon and steelhead fishing, anglers no longer come in droves in the spring and fall.

Business and community members in Maupin say the worsening health of the river started in 2010 after utility Portland General Electric (PGE) installed a special water withdrawal system at its Pelton Round Butte hydroelectric dam around 50 miles upstream from the town.

The system is designed to aid fish passage by creating currents that guide juvenile salmon and steelhead into collection facilities so they can be transported downstream around the dams.

PGE also uses the system to regulate water temperature on the lower Deschutes by mixing water from the surface and bottom of a reservoir at the top of the dam. The mixing creates the currents for fish passage and is also supposed to keep water temperatures closer to what they would be if the dam were not there. 

But the practice has destroyed water quality on the river, say observers.


The surface water PGE withdraws from the reservoir is polluted with agricultural run-off from the Crooked River, a tributary that flows into the reservoir.

Come spring, the rocks on the lower Deschutes River are covered in thick algae, making it dangerous for anglers and recreationists to wade. The water becomes turbid and cloudy. Algae smothers aquatic insects, which the fish would normally feed on. Anglers say they see fewer insects in the air and catch fewer fish.

Small business owners say poor water quality is having a disastrous effect on the economy of Maupin, which relies on tourists and anglers. “The most important thing about this area is the Deschutes,” says Smeraglio. “It is having a huge economic impact. More than people realize.”

pelton dam 1Photo credit: Greg McMillan      Pelton Round Butte dam

When I meet Jonah Sandford, a young, bearded attorney from Montana, for coffee in March, it has only been a week since he helped file a motion for summary judgment, asking a court to find PGE liable for violating environmental standards from its water release practices at the Powell Round Butte dam.

Sandford, an outdoor enthusiast who likes to canoe on the Deschutes, is staff attorney for the Deschutes River Alliance, a nonprofit formed by business owners and community members. Sandford, who filed a lawsuit against PGE in August 2016, alleges the utility is violating water quality requirements under the Clean Water Act.

PGE had sincere motivations when it built the water withdrawal system, he acknowledges.

“They had the best intentions to reintroduce salmon and steelhead. There were a lot of people that thought this was a good idea. The problem is there were implications that people didn’t see coming. They are not acknowledging these implications.”

The attorney says PGE is withdrawing 100% surface water from Lake Billy Chinook reservoir at the top of dam for six to seven months of the year – more than the utility needs to. “They should be avoiding discharging surface water as much as possible because of the nuisance algae,” he says.

Jonah SandfordJonah Sandford

Sandford showed me PGE’s own water quality monitoring reports submitted to Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that show hundreds of days between 2012 and 2017 when the utility violated so-called Clean Water Act 401 certification requirements for pH, dissolved oxygen and water temperature.

“Our goal is to get them to comply with requirements of the Clean Water Act. We not are prescribing any particular way,” says Sandford.

PGE denies it is violating the standards and will contest the allegations in court, along with the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, which co-owns the dam. PGE will not comment on the water quality monitoring reports that the Deschutes River Alliance says shows it in violation of Clean Water Act requirements. “We – PGE and the Confederated Tribes believe and are confident we are in compliance with the license and environmental standards for operating the Pelton dam,” says Steven Corson, PGE spokesman.

PGE has hired an outside consultant to conduct an independent water quality study, which will be available by the first quarter of next year, says Corson. The result of this study will inform whether it needs to make changes to its operation of the dam. As part of its relicensing agreement, PGE agreed to adapt its practices to “respond to the constant balancing act of creating a healthy environment for fish,” says Corson.

“We have committed to base this on good science. We are not arguing that everything is fine. But we argue a lot of good things have happened on the river,” he says.

Though the utility has not yet achieved sustainable salmon runs, progress has been made, says Corson. “We have had the best fall Chinook salmon runs since the tower has been in service.”



The outcome of the lawsuit has a lot at stake for businesses that rely on angling and recreational activities on the Deschutes River. Owners of fly fishing stores in Maupin say they may be forced to close if PGE is allowed to continue its water withdrawal practices. Other businesses in Maupin that depend on anglers and tourists, such as the local grocery store and hotels, will be damaged too.                   

It also exposes the murky world of environmental regulation. Plaintiffs allege Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality is not enforcing environmental standards PGE is subject to. But the regulator sees it differently. Its enforcement of water quality rules in this case shows it is willing to make concessions to businesses that have trouble meeting federally mandated environmental regulation.


Like many hydroelectric projects in the U.S., the Pelton Round Butte hydro was built decades ago.

Completed in 1964, it includes three dams along a 20-mile stretch of the Deschutes River. The most upstream development is Lake Billy Chinook reservoir, which impounds water from three rivers – the Metolius, Crooked and Deschutes rivers. The Metolius River is the coldest and cleanest of the three. Water from this tributary naturally flows to the bottom of the reservoir, while water from the more polluted Crooked River stays at the surface.

Before 2010, when PGE installed its special water withdrawal system, the operator mostly discharged the clean, cold water from the Metolius at the bottom of the reservoir. When PGE renewed its operating license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, it proposed constructing the “selective water withdrawal tower” above the dam to fix issues with fish passage and challenges it faced with regulating water temperatures.

“Our intake at the bottom of the reservoir meant that in early spring and early summer we were releasing water that was colder than nature would have it. Over the course of the summer we would run out of cold water. Then the water would be warmer and you would have a problem with water quality,” says Corson.

The system is working as intended, says the PGE spokesman. “The temperature pattern on the Deschutes is closer to what it is expected to be if the dams were not there.” He added the successful passage of thousands of juvenile fish is also proof the intent of the water withdrawal system is working.

Scientists for the Deschutes River Alliance see it otherwise. Rick Hafele, a retired biologist who sits on the board of directors of the Deschutes River Alliance, says PGE should release more water from the bottom of the reservoir like it did before the tower went in because this creates better conditions for salmon and trout.

The biggest problem with PGE’s water withdrawal approach is that it increases the inflow of nutrients downstream from the surface of Lake Billy Chinook reservoir. “When they release surface water it triggers algae growth and leads to aquatic insect changes,” says Hafele.

RickHafeleheadshotRick Hafele

The poor water quality caused by the intake of polluted water from the Crooked river can be seen on the reservoir at the top of the dam where large algae blooms form. The high pH levels of the water, which are the result of the proliferation of algae on the surface of the reservoir, are among the worst in Oregon, says Hafele. The fact algae still forms on the reservoir despite the mixing of water proves is evidence the approach is ineffective, he says.

Lynn Ewing, Maupin’s mayor, has lived in the town for 39 years. He noticed changes in the water quality of the river after PGE’s tower went in. “The changes weren’t immediate, but they became obvious,” says Ewing, mayor since 2016.

Maupin’s economy is heavily dependent on tourists, who still come in large numbers in June, July and August to raft on the river. But the town is also reliant on fishermen, who come in the spring and fall shoulder months. The number of fishermen that come to the town is down 30% to 40% compared with two to four years ago, says Ewing.

“If the fishing is no longer what it used to be, we will have boarded up storefronts,” says the mayor.

Amy Hazel has run the Deschutes Angler Fly Shop in Maupin since 2003. Her husband, John Hazel, co-owner of the store, is on the board of the Deschutes River Alliance. Since PGE put the tower in she began to notice that the timing of insect hatches started to change. There were also fewer insects for fish to feed on. “The number of insects has declined to the point that they are not there anymore,” she says.

No data exist that show the number of fish has declined since PGE’s tower started operation. But the health of the fish has changed. Many rainbow trout caught in the river are covered with black spot disease, a skin condition that shows up as small black spots. This was not present on the fish before the water withdrawal tower went in, says Hafele.

Black spot 2 Black spot disease

Another parasite present in the river poses a risk to spring Chinook salmon. Ceratonova Shasta, a small worm, can cause up to 95% mortality in infected spring Chinook juveniles. Before PGE’s tower operations, this worm was rarely collected in the river. Since then, samples show more than 4,000 worms per square meter, says Hafele.

Sales at Hazel’s fly fishing store are down 20% since 2011. The couple has had to cut staff and reduce the number of fishing trips. “If our business shows no growth or declines in growth we will have to close doors,” she says.


It is not just angling stores that are impacted. Fewer anglers coming to the town has had a trickle-down effect on the local grocery store, gas stations and hotels.

Randy Bechtol, owner of the Maupin Market grocery store, says sales at his business have fallen five per cent a year over the past four years. “If we lose anymore sales, in two to three years from now it doesn’t make sense for us to stay in business,” says Bechtol.

The lower number of anglers cannot necessarily be explained by declining popularity in fishing overall. Although fewer people are hunting, a 2017 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service report showed an eight per cent increase in angling participation since 2011. Total spending by anglers nationwide rose two per cent from 2011 to 2016 to $46 billion.

The troubles in Maupin have exposed a rift between people who base their livelihoods on the river and Oregon’s environmental regulator, which enforces the terms of the utility’s water quality certification.

Sandford says he is troubled DEQ has not enforced the water quality rules. “It seems they are giving them a pass on violations of the certificate.”

The regulator disagrees. Eric Nigg, eastern region water quality manager for DEQ, says the agency does not believe PGE is violating its water quality certification. “DEQ believes it is appropriately exercising its enforcement discretion in this instance,” Nigg wrote in an email.

The agency aims to change the water quality requirements for PGE’s 401 certification under the Clean Water Act, which contains specific standards for pH, temperature and dissolved oxygen. The changes will be based on new environmental studies on the effects of PGE’s water withdrawal practices. The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation is also compiling new water quality standards. The most restrictive of the two will be enforced, says Nigg.

Robert Brunoe, a representative for the tribes, declined to comment for this story.


While PGE’s 401 certification is under review, the regulator has entered interim agreements with PGE that have lower standards than those set out in Clean Water Act. These interim agreements have standards for dissolved oxygen and water temperature that are less stringent than those in the original 401 certification. The interim agreement for 2017 does not address pH.

PGE has been part of these interim agreements since 2010 when the utility’s water withdrawal system started operation. “They (PGE) are not in violation for the most part with the new standards,” says Nigg. Although plaintiffs in the case dispute the legaility of the interim agreements, Niggs says the DEQ has authority to put in place the temporary agreements while the 401 certification is modified.

“These agreements implement the standards currently approved by the EQC (Environmental Quality Commission) and the USEPA for this section of the river,” wrote Nigg in an email. The Environmental Quality Commission is the DEQ’s policy and rulemaking board.

Rick Glick, a partner with law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, says the DEQ has broad discretion to enter temporary agreements with the utility and that the agency is acting responsibly in giving PGE the opportunity to keep the water withdrawal tower operating while the utility fixes issues with the project.

“PGE is trying to work with the DEQ to get the tower right. DEQ has entered agreements to get it right. The outcome is the most important thing,” says Glick.  


The trade-off between the economic benefits of hydroelectric dams and their environmental impacts is a common thread in the Pacific Northwest. Despite the degradation they cause to rivers and fish, dams are an important source of relatively clean and cheap electricity in Oregon, which is the second-highest hydropower-producing state in the U.S., behind Washington.

Low-cost hydroelectricity has helped attract industries to rural Oregon that use a lot of power, such as data centers. The fact hydroelectricity is emissions-free means Oregon has one of the cleanest energy profiles in the U.S.

But as the troubles in Maupin show, the economic benefits of hydropower are not felt everywhere. The environmental impacts of the dam clearly outweigh the benefits of cheap, clean power for this central Oregon town heavily dependent on the recreation economy.

Smeraglio, the owner of the Deschutes Canyon Fly Shop, thought his business would provide him with a nest egg when it came time to retire. But now he is not so sure. The degradation of the Deschutes River will make the store worthless if water quality doesn’t improve, he fears.

“If PGE wins, I will lose. So will the rest of the community – the restaurants, the hotels,” says Smeraglio. “This river doesn’t deserve to be abused in this way.”

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This article has been amended to reflect the following clarifications and corrections: Jonah Sandford filed a motion for summary judgment in March 2018, asking the court to find PGE liable for water quality violations. The article orginally stated he filed a lawsuit instead of a motion for summary judgment. The Deschutes River Alliance actually filed a lawsuit in August 2016. The high pH levels in Lake Billy Chinook reservoir are the result of the proliferation of algae on the surface of the reservoir. The article originally stated high pH levels cause algae to proliferate. 

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