Celestial Falls (OR)
The headwaters of the White River are fed by an active glacier on the southeastern slopes of Mount Hood in Oregon. The river flows 53 miles through forest, agricultural and desert lands, and is a major tributary of the Deschutes River. The river is well known for White River Falls, where the river plunges over a 90-foot basalt shelf (more info on the falls at the White River Falls page on Waterfalls Northwest). The lower tier at White River Falls is known to kayakers as Celestial Falls, a great waterfall that was runnable prior to a decision by State Parks to “close” the falls. The scenery at White River Falls draws people to White River Falls State Park throughout the year although the gate to the formal parking area is closed in the winter.
Conservation of White River Falls
Recommended for Wild and Scenic
The White River was designated as a Wild and Scenic River in 1988 for its outstanding geology, fish habitat, wildlife, recreation and scenic resource values. The entire length of the river was designated except for a 0.6 mile stretch at White River Falls. The White River was designated as a Wild and Scenic River during the time that the Northern Wasco County Public Utilities District (“NWCPUD”) was exploring the possibility of redeveloping the hydroelectric capacity of the area, and was left undesignated as a result. The decision not to develop the project was made after the river was designated, and the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management recommended that White River Falls be included in the Wild and Scenic River System in their 1993 River Management Plan. NWCPUD was supportive of this recommendation at the time. Unfortunately, no action was taken on this recommendation and the 0.6 miles of the White River at White River Falls have remained undesignated.
Identified as a Protected Area
The river was also recognized for its conservation value by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. In 1983 the Council directed an analysis of the region’s rivers culminating in the identification of Protected Areas in 1988 representing rivers where hydroelectric development would represent an unacceptable risk of irreversible loss to fish and wildlife. Simply put, Protected Areas represent places where fish and wildlife values are judged to outweigh the value of electricity that could be generated. The Council further concluded that protecting these resources and habitats is consistent with an adequate, efficient, economical, and reliable power supply.
Protection of Instream Flows Through Scenic Water Right
While NWCPUD held a water right for hydroelectric production for the site, the utility requested that the right be surrendered in 1993 after they decided not to pursue the project, and the Oregon Water Resources Department cancelled the right.1) In December of 1994, the Oregon Water Resources Control Board filed for and approved an instream scenic water right2) at White River Falls on behalf of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
History of Hydroelectric Development
A hydroelectric project was constructed at White River Falls in the early 1900’s and operated until the Dalles Dam was completed in the 1960’s. The dam, diversion works, portions of the penstocks and powerhouse were left behind. In 1983 the Northern Wasco County Public Utilities District (“NWCPUD”) applied for a license to rehabilitate the old project for hydroelectric production (FERC P-7270). However, the project was ultimately not found to be economically feasible at that time, and NWCPUD decided not to pursue production formally surrendering their license in 1995.
In 2010, NWCPUD turned its attention back to rehabilitating the hydroelectric infrastructure at White River Falls. In January 2011, FERC issued a preliminary permit to NWCPUD to allow them to investigate the feasibility of the project (FERC P-13833). American Whitewater, our non-profit partners and recreationists who enjoy White River Falls were concerned about how the project would impact the instream flows that make White River Falls a valuable scenic resource. In November of 2010, AW filed a Motion to Intervene in the Application for the Preliminary Permit for the White River Falls Hydroelectric Project.
There are two instream water rights on this stretch of the White River. One is held by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for protection of aquatic life, and flows vary seasonally from 60 cfs to 145 cfs.3) The second instream water right is held by the Oregon Water Resources Department on behalf of the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department to protect the scenic values at White River Falls and varies from 127 cfs to 743 cfs. NWPUD used modeling to determine that it could operate its proposed facility without impacting the instream right for aquatic protection, but that it was not economically feasible to operate the project while maintaining flows for the scenic right. It appeared that the only way to make the project viable from an economic standpoint was for NWCPUD to challenge the instream scenic right using an Oregon state law that places hydroelectric values over that of an instream scenic use (ORS 537.352). In March 2011, NWCPUD stepped away from their plans to revive hydroelectric production at White River Falls.
Whitewater Boating at Celestial Falls
Historically Celestial Falls has been recognized as one of the best waterfalls in the country for paddlers to sharpen their skills on big drops. In 2001 Tygh Valley State Park “closed” the falls to kayaking citing safety concerns, although recreational use of the lower falls for kayaking is specifically referenced in the river management plan and does take place. American Whitewater has long regarded this closure as inconsistent with state and national river management practices. Waterfall bans have generally been temporary on rivers where they have been instituted. Images of kayakers running the Celestial Falls have been featured in national print media and a photograph of a kayaker on the falls was awarded the 2006 Windland Smith Rice International Award for People in Nature, and featured in an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution. Local volunteers interested in becoming more actively involved in an effort to restore whitewater boating as a valid activity at the falls should contact American Whitewater.
The contacts below include staff and volunteers working on this project. Make sure you are logged in if you wish to join the group.
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