By Roy L Hales
There have been salmon die-offs since the mid-1990s. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was on the verge of addressing this issue more than a decade ago. Vested interests objected. The idea was shelved until last year’s drought. After water temperatures rose 4 degrees above the lethal ceiling (68 degrees F), 96% of the returning adult sockeye died before they could pass beyond the Lower Granite dam. Now a coalition of environmental groups is forcing EPA to protect salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers.
Forcing EPA To Protect Sockeye Salmon
“The deaths of 250,000 sockeye in 2015 was a reminder of what we already understood. It is probably also an ugly glance into the future of the Columbia and Snake Rivers under climate change, unless we make these rivers cool enough for salmon to migrate,” said Miles Johnson, attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper.
He added that while 2015 was the most severe die-off, every year “We lose adult sockeye at the Lower Snake River dams because of temperature problems.”[1. Roy L Hales interview with Miles Johnson, attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper]
“It’s simply unacceptable to let hot water kill otherwise-healthy adult salmon before they can spawn,” said Glen Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Institute for Fisheries Resources.
A lawyer representing their organizations, as well as Snake River Waterkeeper and Idaho Rivers United, filed notice of intent to sue. The EPA has 60 days to finalize a pollution budget—called a Total Maximum Daily Load under the Clean Water Act—or agree to a settlement. If the government agency fails to comply, the groups will seek a court order compelling the EPA to act.
Increases Caused By The Larger Dams
The Agency made numerous references to the cause of this problem in a preliminary report from 2003:
- “The majority of the temperature increases (as much as 6 °C) are caused by the larger dams: therefore, water quality standards cannot be achieved under Clean Water Act”[2. Columbia/Snake Rivers Temperature TMDL Preliminary Draft July, 2003, p x]
- (The dams) ” …. increase the cross-sectional average temperature and they extend the period of time during which the water temperature exceeds numeric temperature criteria. The impact to water temperature of the dams ranges from very small at Rock Island where the maximum impact is about 0.07 °C to the impact of Grand Coulee which is as high as 6.0 °C in the late fall. Eight of the 15 dams have maximum impacts to temperature of over 0.5 °C.”[3. ibid, p x]
- ” … there is a group of six dams that clearly increase temperature by more than a degree centigrade and up to as much as 6 °C. These six dams are Grand Coulee, John Day, Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor. Second, there is a group of two dams that have highly variable impacts on temperature up to a degree centigrade. … Finally, there is a group of seven dams with highly variable impacts ranging from no impact to a maximum impact of 0.5 °C. … At Wells, Rocky Reach and Rock Island the temperature effect is so small and so variable that they actually have a cooling effect on the river on the average.”[4. ibid, p 30]
Johnson explained that the problem primarily occurs in dams with shallow reservoirs.
“Dams warm the water by backing up these big reservoirs. The reservoirs slow the river down and spread it out. That allows the water to collect more heat and more solar energy. In some cases the dams are increasing the water temperature by several degrees.”
Towards A Solution
At the request of Washington and Oregon, the EPA were working towards a solution of this problem between 2000 and 2003. They allegedly stopped after the dam operators objected.
The environmental groups who filed today insist this is not an option.
The same warm water temperatures that killed a quarter of a million sockeye, made it difficult for adult chinook to migrate.
“If we can’t get temperature problems in the Columbia under control over the next fifty years, as climate change takes effect, we may end up telling our kids stories about salmon instead of teaching them to fish,” says Johnson.
Top Photo Credit: One of the dead sockeye from 2015 – Courtesy Columbia Riverkeeper