A lawsuit regarding one of Central Oregon’s oldest dam complexes has been working its way through the legal system for nearly two years, and it could come to a head later this year.
Following a 2016 lawsuit alleging that the current management of the Pelton Round Butte Hydroelectric Project, a massive three-dam complex outside Madras, violates aspects of the federal Clean Water Act, the parties went into mediation. But after mediation failed to yield a result, oral arguments were scheduled for July, and a trial is tentatively scheduled for December.
“This is one of those things that will drag on for a while,” said Steve Corson, spokesman for Portland General Electric, which manages the dam complex.
The plaintiff, the Portland-based conservation organization Deschutes River Alliance, notes that a facility designed to restore fish passage to parts of the Lower Deschutes is violating the terms of the facility’s license that pertains to water temperature and quality, as well as other aspects. Jonah Sandford, executive director for the organization, said the changes could impact the river’s ecology, and the communities along the Lower Deschutes that rely on it.
“If discharges from the (facility) do not comply with Oregon’s water quality standards, we think there is every reason to believe that the health of the river will continue to suffer,” Sandford wrote in an email.
However, PGE has argued that the lawsuit has applied the wrong standards when looking at the health of the river, and misrepresented the impact a facility designed to restore fish passage has had on the river.
“What we’re doing now is closer to the natural passage you would expect to see before the dam was built,” Corson said.
PGE has co-managed the facility with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs since the project was relicensed in 2005. Corson said the facility, built during the 1950s and 1960s, originally had plans to facilitate fish passage, but the process didn’t work correctly. In 2010, a 273-foot tower, known as a selective withdrawal facility, was built at the dam complex. The tower was designed to restore water quality to a more natural state, while moving young salmon and steelhead into facilities where they could be transported downstream.
In August 2016, the Deschutes River Alliance filed a lawsuit against PGE, alleging more than 1,200 violations of the project’s certification.
Earlier this year, PGE and the environmental nonprofit filed motions for summary judgment, each asking the court to rule in its favor without a full trial.
Sandford wrote that the selective water withdrawal system has changed the ecology of the river, contributing to increased algae blooms, parasites and diseases that harm trout, steelhead and salmon. The changing conditions harm the economies of communities like Maupin, which relies on fishing and rafting on the river as critical aspects of its tourism economy, according to Sandford.
“Like all Oregon residents, we would be thrilled to see salmon and steelhead successfully reintroduced above the dams,” he wrote. “However, we believe that for the reintroduction program to be successful, it is critical that we protect water quality in the river’s lower 100 miles.”
Corson maintained that the situation is more complicated. He said the utility has to balance various competing standards around water quality, water temperature and other factors, while managing fish populations using a relatively new facility. He added that it can be difficult to isolate the impact of the facility from factors like snowpack size.
“While the equipment we have on the river certainly has an impact, other things do as well,” Corson said.
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