Oregon DEQ withdraws proposal to weaken Crooked River and Trout Creek water quality standards

In Oregon by James Fraser

The Crooked River at Smith Rock State Park. Image: James Fraser.  

Wild Steelheaders United is pleased to announce that the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has withdrawn its proposal to roll back water quality standards in the Crooked River and Trout Creek (both important tributaries for wild fish in the Deschutes River). 

In January 2022, DEQ began a major process to update when and where various temperature and dissolved oxygen water quality criteria apply, based upon on how fish and other aquatic life use each waterbody. These criteria are important because they serve as targets for water quality restoration plans and inform agency decisions about permitting wastewater discharge permits. In many streams across Oregon, the updated criteria would apply more protective water quality standards to meet the needs of wild fish. Trout Unlimited supported many of those adjustments. 
Unfortunately, at the same time DEQ also shoe-horned in a proposal to change the pH criteria for the Crooked River and Trout Creek (which include designated critical habitat for bull trout and summer steelhead, respectively) to a less stringent standard in the massive rule package.

Deschutes steelhead. Image: James Fraser.

For the past two years, Trout Unlimited and partners—as well as the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife—pushed back on DEQ’s proposal to backslide on the pH criteria in these streams. The Deschutes Chapter of Trout Unlimited published a letter to the editor in the Bend Bulletin opposing the changes. Local guides, anglers, TU chapters, TU members, and other river advocates provided verbal and written testimony during formal comment periods opposing the change. TU staff testified before the Environmental Quality Commission and provided detailed written comments elaborating our concerns about the plans to weaken water quality standards in these streams.   

This advocacy made a difference!  

DEQ’s staff report to the Commission accompanying the final rule package (in November 2023) summarized the overwhelming public opposition to the pH criteria rule change, and DEQ staff withdrew the proposal to change pH criteria in Crooked River and Trout Creek. Moving forward, DEQ plans to collect and analyze additional data on natural background pH levels in the Crooked River and Trout Creek before reevaluating whether to revise the pH criteria.  

Crooked River below Bowman Dam in August 2022. Image: Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife.  
A Win for Water Quality and Public Process 

We think Oregon DEQ has taken the right approach here and appreciate the agency’s staff for listening to public input in the process. Indeed, that is how our system is supposed to work; not in the sense that the public always gets its way or that rule changes are handled on a simple “majority vote” based on the number of public commenters, but that resource agencies are open to changing course and nimble enough to adjust the trajectory of a rulemaking based on input from the public, outside experts, and sister agencies.   

Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission approved the adjusted rule package—without the problematic pH proposal for Crooked River and Trout Creek—on November 17, 2023. 

As DEQ conducts its due diligence and monitoring of natural pH levels in these subbasins, TU and our partners will continue restoration projects to improve water quality and fish habitat in the Crooked River and Trout Creek. For instance, Trout Unlimited recently applied for a grant alongside Native Fish Society to restore instream habitat in almost two miles of Trout Creek. If funded, our joint project would lower temperature and decrease sedimentation in the stream (which is critical habitat for summer steelhead), as well as provide important spawning and rearing habitat benefits.  

Wild steelhead, bull trout, redband trout, and other native fish in the Crooked River and Trout Creek need water of sufficient quality to support their needs. Trout Unlimited’s Oregon staff and dedicated grassroots members are working to ensure they have it, on both the policy and habitat restoration fronts.  

If you have questions about this topic, please contact TU’s Oregon Policy Advisor, James Fraser, at james.fraser@tu.org.