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Of fish and faucets


City spends $93 million to save species, keep drinking water flowing

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland Water Bureau fish biologist Burke Strobel retrieves young fish from the Rotary Smolt Trap in the Lower Bull Run River in Dodge Park.On a recent chilly Friday morning, Burke Strobel walked into the Lower Bull Run River just above its confluence with the Sandy River in Dodge Park.

Wearing chest waders as protection against the freezing water, Strobel carried a plastic cooler out to a large, revolving metal cylinder anchored about 20 feet offshore. It was a Rotary Smolt Trap designed to catch and hold young fish swimming downstream.

After reaching the device, Strobel lifted a hatch and scooped several trapped fish into the cooler and then waded back to the shore. There he measured and weighed the fish, and clipped their fins so they can be accurately tracked if captured again. The information, recorded in a notebook, will be passed onto the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to help monitor fish runs in the river.

Although Strobel is a fish biologist, he does not work for NMFS or even the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. He works for the Portland Water Bureau.

The idea that the water bureau has a fish biology program may surprise most Portlanders. There has been a lot of criticism in recent years about the City Council spending ratepayer funds on projects not directly related to delivering water. But the council has decided fish biology is directly related to that service. It is part of a 50-year, $93 million Bull Run Water Supply Habitat Conservation Plan approved by the council in 2008 to continue serving water customers.

The council approved the plan to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act. Under the act, the federal government has declared several fish runs in the Sandy River Basin endangered. That is where Portland gets most of its drinking water — from two dams across the Bull Run River in the watershed.

The plan reached a milestone earlier this year with the formal completion of its most expensive project, a $39.7 million modification to the North Tower in the reservoir behind Dam 2. The tower channels water from the reservoir into the conduits that serve the city and also into the portion of the Bull Run River below the dam.

The modification allows dam operators to draw water from different levels of the reservoir, where temperatures vary depending on depth. This allows operators to adjust the temperature of the discharge into the Lower Bull Run River to maximize conditions for survival and proliferation of the endangered fish species — the primary goal of the plan.

“Water temperature is even more important than volume when it comes to saving fish,” says Steve Kucas, a fish biologist hired by the bureau as the senior environmental program manager to help write and implement the plan.

Although the modification has been completed and has been operating for a year, the council paid the final bills on April 8 during a hearing that included a recap of the project and its place in the larger plan.

More fish means more water

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - A juvenile steelhead is weighed and measured after being retrieved from the Rotary Smolt Trap.Controversy surrounds some of the federal mandates that Portland must follow. For example, because of the Clean Water Act, the City Council spent $1.4 billion in sewer ratepayer funds to significantly reduce sewer overflows into the Willamette River. Although the Big Pipe project is successful, the cost made Portland’s combined water-sewer-stormwater management bills among the highest in the country.

Many residents are upset the council has authorized the open reservoirs in Mount Tabor and Washington parks to be disconnected to comply with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules. They argue Portland’s drinking water already is safe and say the council should not have spent $279 million to build replacement underground tanks at Kelly and Powell buttes.

But there is little awareness of the Bull Run Water Supply Habitat Conservation Plan. And that’s not because the city has tried to hide it. The council passed a resolution directing the water bureau to develop the plan in May 2005 after the National Marine Fisheries Service listed four species of fish native to the Bull Run and Sandy rivers as endangered — Columbia River Basin winter steelhead, Lower Columbia River chinook (spring and fall runs), Lower Columbia River coho and Columbia River chum salmon. The council then passed an ordinance approving the plan in October 2008.

The reason for the plan is simple — once the four fish species were declared endangered, the city had to get a permit from NMFS to continue drawing water out of the Bull Run Reservoir. To get the permit, the city had to show it had developed a habitat conservation plan that complied with the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. Managing the temperature of the Lower Bull Run River is part of that plan. It was accepted by both NMFS and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, acting on behalf of the EPA.

According to Kucas, the city had two options for adopting the plan. One would have been to ask the federal government what it needed to do and follow those directives. The other was to develop its own plan and submit it for approval. The city chose the latter option.

“The feeling was, we know our system better than the federal government. And the federal government could change its mind and add requirements every few years. Writing our own plan gives us more certainty,” Kucas says.

The plan requires far more than just the modification to the North Tower, however. It calls for habitat mitigation and restoration projects to better protect the endangered fish species throughout the entire Sandy River Basin. They were developed in cooperation with the Sandy River Basin Partners, a coalition representing numerous local, state and federal environmental agencies, in addition to such nongovernmental organizations as the Nature Conservancy and Northwest Steelheaders. Projects include removing manmade obstacles in the Lower Bull Run River and other waterways, and placing downed trees in rivers, streams and creeks to create new habitat for fish, planting trees along the banks to cool water temperatures.

Monitoring fish runs and reporting the findings to NMFS also is part of the plan. The approximately $100,000 a year cost was included in the original $93.7 million cost of the 50-year plan.

The bureau has submitted annual compliance reports with NMFS and the ODEQ since the plan was approved by the council. They have all been accepted and the required permits have been issued and renewed.

Unique project

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - A $39.7 million modification to the North Tower at the Bull Run Reservoir  allows water temperatures to be adjusted in the Lower Bull Run River to save fish.The Water Bureau used the Bull Run Dam 2 North Tower Improvement Project for much of last year to adjust the temperature of the lower Bull Run River. Temperatures were measured by a sensor installed in the river from the Larson Bridge that crosses over it below the reservoirs. Bureau officials say they were able to achieve the desired temperatures for most of the year until September, and believe they can do even better this year.

The project is not only the largest one in the plan, it could be the largest such project ever undertaken by a city to comply with the Endangered Species Act in the country, according to the Water Bureau. The project — a 120-foot-tall steel frame holding a series of water inlets that can be opened and closed remotely — is one of a kind. It was designed specifically to attach to the North Tower, which makes it unique.

Not only that, but the project had to be built off-site in sections and transported to the reservoir, where it was assembled and installed. The road to the reservoir is narrow and winding, and includes a bridge with a limited clearance. Because of that, the framework and related parts had to be fabricated in eight separate pieces, all within the legal maximum size that could be hauled by trucks to the reservoirs.

Much of the fabrication was done by Oregon Iron Works on some of the largest milling machines in the state.

The challenges only increased when the parts reached the work site. Because the reservoir could not be drained, they had to be installed in the water. Temperatures were so low, divers could only stay in the water for 20 or so minutes at a time. Although no water was drawn from the tower during the work, a large “silt curtain” had to be installed around it to prevent stirred up sediment from reaching the second tower behind the dam that provided all of the city’s water during the installation.

“It was an extremely challenging project, but everyone did their part and it came together without any problems,” says Dave Peters, a principal engineer for the bureau who worked on it.