Boil On Columbia

Bonneville damThe water temperature of the Columbia River at Bonneville Dam hit 73 degrees on August 18.  This is the watery equivalent of a sick canary in a coal mine.  

So far this summer, 80 days of water temperatures 70 degrees or above have occurred at the federal dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers, including 30 straight days at Ice Harbor Dam and 20 straight days at Bonneville Dam.

Water in the 300 miles of uninterrupted slackwater behind federal dams in these two rivers is always warm in summer. But it’s getting warmer, with more to come. This is bad for people, salmon, communities and economies.

The optimal temperature range for juvenile and adult salmon in Northwest rivers is 55-64 degrees.  Stream temperatures above 70 degrees hit them hard, particularly when maintained over extended periods of time in extended stretches of river, like this year. Seven years ago scientists identified human-caused warming of river temperatures as a key factor in the decline of Columbia and Snake River salmon. Today the problem is worse, and in the coming years will be worse still.  

The harm to salmon presages harm to people.  Last week an SOS colleague spent time on the lower Snake below Lewiston, and called the river fetid.  This is someone who knows rivers, and knows a healthy river from a sick one.  The Lower Snake is growing sicker with each summer.

This is a big problem for people and fish.  Warming water is not confined just to slackwaters behind dams, but slackwaters make it worse and last longer, and a whole lot of the Columbia and Snake Rivers are now slackwaters.  In a future post I will ask what the agencies in charge of the dams are doing about it, and suggest some things Northwest people can do.

Meanwhile, here’s a new chorus to an old song.  Woody Guthrie is 100 years old this year; no one can beat him in the song biz, but he’s not writing anymore so we have to try to keep his great song alive 70 years after he wrote it.  If you can come up with another version, send it to Amy Baird, or sing it in a voicemail - 503.230.0421 x13   

Warm on Columbia warm on
Warm on Columbia fry on
You’re not boiling yet but it’s coming along
So salmon and steelhead, so long
[or] So friend salmon and steelies, so long


Save Our wild Salmon is a diverse, nationwide coalition working together to restore wild salmon and steelhead to the rivers, streams and marine waters of the Pacific Northwest for the benefit of our region's ecology, economy and culture.

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