Streams and rivers fail clean water test

October 15, 2002 12:00 am
The Powder River has hit a lazy level this fall as water from Phillips Reservoir for irrigation has been reduced. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
The Powder River has hit a lazy level this fall as water from Phillips Reservoir for irrigation has been reduced. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Sections of more than 45 rivers and streams in Baker County are too warm or too dirty to meet federal water quality standards.

Some are too warm and too dirty.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is compiling a list of such streams for its bi-annual report to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

DEQ will accept public comments until Nov. 1 about the "303(d) list," named for the section of the Clean Water Act that requires the lists.

DEQ's draft list is available on the Internet at www.deq.state.or.us/wq/303dlist/303dpage.htm.

Paper copies are available by writing to Marilyn Fonseca at Oregon DEQ, Water Quality Division, Attn: Marilyn Fonseca, 811 S.W. Sixth Ave., Portland, OR 97204-1390.

You can mail comments to the above address, fax them to 503/229-6037, or e-mail to This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Most local streams on the current draft list also were included in DEQ's most recent 303(d) report, filed with EPA in 1998, Fonseca said.

Lists usually are required every two years, but EPA did not require Oregon to compile one in 2000, she said.

And as was the case four years ago, the federal standard most Baker County streams have failed to comply with is water temperature.

Streams are added to the 303(d) list if their water temperature exceeds levels considered healthy for fish — 64 degrees for most rivers, but 50 degrees for ones containing bull trout, of which there are several in Northeastern Oregon.

Not surprisingly, most local streams that exceed those standards do so during the summer, according to DEQ.

Other stream segments made the 303(d) list because they are too dirty, contain excessive levels of fecal coliform bacteria, or hold too little dissolved oxygen to keep fish healthy.

Brownlee Reservoir is listed for excessive mercury levels.

The Oregon Health Services recommends certain people limit their consumption of fish caught in Brownlee or in the Snake River downstream from Hells Canyon Dam.

The agency issues advisories when fish are tested and contain more than .35 parts per million (ppm) of mercury.

The average level of mercury found in fish caught in Brownlee and the Snake River is .41 ppm, according to Oregon Health Services.

Officials believe the mercury derived from rocks and geothermal vents in the area, and possibly from past mining.

Mercury accumulates in human tissue, and at excessive levels can harm the brain, nervous system, kidneys and liver.

Cooking fish does not remove mercury.

The recommended consumption limits are:

o Children six or younger, no more than one four-ounce meal of fish every month.

o Women of child-bearing age, and especially women who are pregnant, nursing or who plan to become pregnant, no more than one eight-ounce meal every two and a half weeks.

o Women not in any of the above categories, children older than six and healthy adults may safely eat as much as one eight-ounce meal every five days, or six such meals per month.

The Health Services' recommended limits apply to all fish species except steelhead, which spend little time in freshwater streams.

Fonseca said DEQ's draft list is based on data the agency gathered prior to compiling the 1998 report, or in the ensuing four years.

The agency collected some of that data on its own, but it also relies heavily on federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, Fonseca said.

Several months before it started assembling the current draft 303(d) report, DEQ sent letters to those agencies, as well as to hundreds of other agencies and groups that test water quality, asking them to submit any data they've collected, Fonseca said.

If the information was gathered using DEQ's approved methods, the agency uses the statistics to determine whether a particular stream segment should be included in the 303(d) list, she said.

EPA requires management plans for streams on that list, Fonseca said.

The plans are supposed to include methods for eliminating pollutants, and thus helping the streams comply with whatever federal standards they now fail.

For river segments flowing through public land, an agency such as the Forest Service or BLM is responsible for writing the plan, according to DEQ.

For streams on private property, the landowners work with DEQ, the Oregon Department of Agriculture and other agencies to write management plans.

Thus far the 303(d) report from 1998 has had "subtle but noticeable effects" on Baker County, said Jerry Franke, manager of the Burnt River Irrigation District.

The most noticeable of those effects is the writing of management plans based on guidelines in Oregon's Senate Bill 1010, which deals only with private land, Franke said.

Property owners in the Burnt River basin, with help from Oregon State University and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, have finished their plan and submitted it to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, he said.

The Powder Basin is working on its plan.

Franke said the key conclusion in the Burnt River sub-basin plan is that natural factors, rather than livestock grazing and logging, are responsible for streams in the basin exceeding the 64-degree standard.

According to DEQ's draft list, segments of 15 streams in the Burnt River sub-basin are warmer than that, at least during the summer.

After studying water temperatures in the sub-basin for the past four years, "our feeling is that these streams never were 64 degrees (during summer), and can't be," Franke said.

The reason, he said, is a simple one: Eastern Oregon summers are hot.

Air temperature is the primary factor in warming water, but elevation plays a role, as well, he said.

High in the mountains, both the air and the ground tend to be cooler than in adjacent valleys; and so streams flowing in the mountains tend to carry cooler water.

But most of the 303(d) streams in the Burnt River sub-basin, as well as across much of Eastern Oregon, are at lower elevations where the summer sun really sizzles.

"Our conclusion is that ambient air and elevation have more of an effect (on water temperature) than other factors," Franke said.

There is flexibility in the federal rules, according to DEQ, so it's possible that the EPA could waive the 64-degree standard if it becomes clear that a stream's temperature will exceed that level regardless of how the land through which it flows is managed.

The Burnt River findings Franke cited contradict claims from environmental groups, who believe Eastern Oregon streams are warm in part because livestock have eaten or loggers have cut many of the streamside trees and shrubs that used to cast cooling shadows over the water.

Such claims have convinced many ranchers that the 303(d) lists are intended to force them to fence streams to keep out livestock, or make other expensive changes to their operations, Franke said.

Yet he said the recent studies along the Burnt River prove that river water ranchers use to irrigate their hay fields actually is cooler after it has percolated through the ground than when it was diverted from the river channel into a ditch or sprinkler pipe.

Fonseca said the river basins in Union and Wallowa county are higher priorities for management plans than are Baker County's basins.

DEQ probably won't shift its focus to Baker County for at least a few years, she said.

Ken Diebel, who works for the Oregon Department of Agriculture out of La Grande, said thus far 303(d) lists have triggered a lot of work on management plans, but have not changed how ranchers and other landowners can use water they have established rights for.

Franke said that's also the case in Baker County.

But ranchers remain cautious about the future effects of any rules involving water quality, he said.

"The 303(d) list certainly is a trigger for these plans," Franke said. "Unfortunately, we believe the barrel is pointed at agriculture."

According to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the following river and stream segments fail to meet at least one federal water quality standard:

Powder sub-basin

o Anthony Creek (standard failed: summer temperature)

o California Gulch (summer temperature)

o Dean Creek (summer temperature)

o Eagle Creek (summer temperature)

o East Fork Goose Creek (spring/summer turbidity)

o Elk Creek (summer temperature)

o Indian Creek (summer temperature)

o North Powder River (summer temperature)

o Powder River (summer temperature, lack of dissolved oxygen, excessive fecal coliform bacteria)

o Silver Creek (summer temperature)

o Sutton Creek (temperature, summer and March 1-June 30)

o West Eagle Creek (summer temperature)

o West Fork Sutton Creek (temperature, summer and March 1-June 30)

Burnt sub-basin

o Auburn Creek (summer temperature)

o Burnt River (summer temperature, excessive chlorophyll)

o Camp Creek (sedimentation)

o China Creek (sedimentation, summer temperature)

o Cottonwood Creek (temperature, summer and March 1-June 30)

o Dark Canyon (temperature, summer and March 1-June 30)

o Dixie Creek (temperature, summer and March 1-June 30)

o East Camp Creek (summer temperature)

o Geiser Creek (sedimentation)

o Gimlet Creek (sedimentation)

o Lawrence Creek (temperature, summer and March 1-June 30)

o North Fork Burnt River (sedimentation, summer temperature)

o North Fork Dixie Creek (temperature, summer and March 1-June 30)

o Patrick Creek (sedimentation, summer temperature)

o Pine Creek (temperature, summer and March 1-June 30)

o Sisley Creek (temperature, March 1-June 30)

o South Fork Dixie Creek (temperature, summer and March 1-June 30)

o Trout Creek (sedimentation, summer temperature)

o West Fort Burnt River (sedimentation)

Brownlee Reservoir sub-basin

o Aspen Creek (summer temperature)

o Beecher Creek (summer temperature)

o Big Elk Creek (summer temperature)

o Clear Creek (summer temperature)

o Connor Creek (temperature, summer and March 1-June 30)

o East Pine Creek (summer temperature)

o Elk Creek (summer temperature)

o Fox Creek (temperature, summer and March 1-June 30)

o Lake Fork (summer temperature)

o Meadow Creek (summer temperature)

o Morgan Creek (temperature, summer and March 1-June 30)

o Okanogan Creek (summer temperature)

o Pine Creek (summer temperature)

o Quicksand Creek (temperature, summer and March 1-June 30)

o Snake River-Brownlee Reservoir (summer temperature, excessive mercury levels)

o Trail Creek (summer temperature)

o Trinity Creek (summer temperature)