A unique partnership
The Pelton Round Butte hydro project is the only hydroelectric project in the U.S. jointly owned by a Native American tribe and a utility. As partners, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (Wasco, Warm Springs and Paiute tribes) and PGE share both the responsibilities and benefits of running the project. The Tribes currently own one third of the facility, with the option to buy up to 50.01 percent from PGE as early as 2029.
Together, the Tribes and PGE have worked hard over the years to build a collaborative relationship. Each party brings a different set of skills, knowledge and perspectives to the table, which makes for very effective planning. The agreement they’ve developed protects the Tribes’ historic and cultural resources, including archaeological sites, culturally significant plants and historic properties. Power from the three dams has become an important source of income for both sides.
Three dams on the Deschutes
Named “River of the Falls” (Riviere des Chutes in French), the Deschutes River is the lifeblood of Central Oregon. Originating in Lava Lake in the Cascade Mountains and joined by the Metolius and Crooked Rivers, it drops 4,589 feet on its way to the Columbia River. The Deschutes is an important habitat for Chinook salmon, steelhead, redside trout (rainbow trout), Pacific lamprey, and bull trout, providing a fish harvest for the Tribes and a rich resource for recreation and tourism. It also provides irrigation for local agriculture and produces electricity for the region.
The power of this river is converted to electric energy by the Pelton Round Butte project—three dams located six miles west of Madras, Oregon. Built between 1957 and 1964, Pelton Round Butte is the largest hydroelectric project located entirely in Oregon. It generates 1.5 billion kWh per year—enough to power a city the size of Salem.
The uppermost dam in the system is Round Butte, which forms Lake Billy Chinook—a popular recreation destination for fishermen, boaters and campers. Pelton, the middle dam, forms Lake Simtustus, another popular recreation spot. The lowermost dam is the re-regulating dam and is used to balance river flows to meet peak power demands.
Fish passage issues
The dams were originally constructed with both upstream and downstream fish passage facilities. However, once the dams were built, unforeseen changes in the river currents and water temperature made it impossible for the fish to find the downstream pipeline.
Water from the Metolius, being colder than the other two rivers, sank to the bottom of Lake Billy Chinook. Much of the warmer water of the Crooked River and the upper Deschutes flowed over the top of the colder water and back up the Metolius. The water that did flow down toward the dam, where the downstream fish passage was located, ended up swirling in eddies with no distinct current. Since the fish follow the river currents, they simply couldn’t find the downstream fish passage. The system also made the lower Deschutes much colder than it was before.
With no way for the young fish to migrate downstream, it became pointless to provide upstream passage for the adult fish. So in 1968, the program that used the upstream fish ladders was terminated and a fish hatchery was built below the dams to maintain the fish population in the lower Deschutes. See charts showing yearly Deschutes River salmon and steelhead runs on PGE’s corporate Web site.
An effective collaboration
As part of the relicensing agreement with the federal government for use of the Pelton Round Butte dams, PGE and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, as co-owners, have worked for several years to develop a solution to the fish passage issues. Since 1995, they have collaborated with over 22 organizations and agencies to study the situation thoroughly and come up with an effective answer.
At a time when key decisions about the future of wild fish and the environment are often characterized by disputes and lawsuits, this process of collaboration has resulted in a much more effective plan. From environmental organizations to state fisheries and federal agencies, each group contributed a unique set of perspectives, ideas and knowledge about the region and its needs. The result is a solution that not only restores fish migration, but improves the Deschutes River Basin and its tributaries for all who live, work and play here.
After several years of planning, PGE and the Tribes settled on a solution to restore fish passage: a underwater tower and fish collection facility 700 feet upstream from Round Butte dam. With its unique design, the tower mimics the natural conditions of the river, drawing warmer water off the surface to modify the reservoir currents and water temperatures and attract fish into the collection facility. In this facility (the only visible part of the structure), the fish are gathered, sorted by size and piped to a fish handling facility. The fish are then transported downstream to continue their migration to the sea.
The existing upstream passage of fish ladders and truck transportation will be put to use once the fish return to spawn. The plan also includes projects to improve the habitat along the creeks and streams above and below the dams to provide shelter and protection for the young fish on their journey downstream.