By Eric Barker of the Tribune
Oct 19, 2018
A U.S. District Court judge at Seattle has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to complete a long-stalled plan to address elevated water temperatures in the lower Snake and Columbia rivers that can rise to lethal levels for salmon and steelhead. In the heat of summer, water temperatures in both rivers frequently climb well above 68 degrees, at which time it becomes harmful to salmon and steelhead.
The heating is exacerbated by dams that slow water movement and create more surface area for solar heating.
Judge Ricardo S. Martinez told the agency in a 16-page ruling Wednesday that it must comply with provisions of the Clean Water Act and issue a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, report for the rivers. The document, normally completed by states, sets a daily budget for pollutants entering the river and lays out a long-term plan to solve water-quality problems.
The agency was sued by environmental groups, including Idaho Rivers United, Columbia Riverkeeper and Snake River Waterkeeper, that contend breaching one or more of the dams on the lower Snake River may be the only way to reduce water temperatures.
“Hot water in the lower Snake and Columbia rivers has been a year-in, year-out problem for endangered salmon,” said Kevin Lewis, executive director of Idaho Rivers United at Boise. “This victory will create more protections for endangered species that are an indelible part of our Northwest way of life, culture, economy and heritage.”
The case dates back to the early 2000s when Oregon, Washington and Idaho reached an agreement with the EPA in which the agency pledged to take the lead in writing the plan because of its complicated nature. The process was expected to be complex because of the multiple parties involved — Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Columbia Basin American Indian Tribes and even Canada.
In 2003, the EPA issued a draft plan but the process then stalled. The agency later argued it was the states’ responsibility to write the plan. The stalemate dragged on for 17 years until the environmental groups, alarmed at rising water temperatures — highlighted by the scorching summer of 2015 when hot water and low flows combined to nearly wipe out sockeye run that year — sued the agency.
Ricardo sided with the plaintiffs and ordered the agency to approve or disapprove its draft TMDL within 30 days. If the agency disapproves the document, it has another 30 days to issue a replacement.
Ricardo acknowledged the EPA likely would be unable to complete a TMDL in the short time frame and asked agency officials to work with the plaintiffs to set an agreed upon time line for a final document.
“We would be happy to work with EPA and hopefully come up with a plan that gives them enough time to put together a TMDL with good public involvement that deals with problem quickly and doesn’t allow it drag on and on,” said Bryan Hurlbut from Advocates of the West, a Boise-based law firm that represented the environmental groups.
Coming up with solutions could prove difficult. Water managers have little influence over water temperatures in big rivers, and there are fewproven ways to cool such large bodies of water. For years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released cold water from Dworshak Reservoir to cool the Snake River some 40 miles downstream. The action works but only to a degree. By the time the cold water, mixed in with warm water in the Snake River, reaches Little Goose Dam, the cooling effect is all but gone.
Mark MacIntyre, an EPA spokesman at Seattle said agency officials are reviewing Judge Ricardo’s order and not commenting further.
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