By The Associated Press
May 13, 2020
LONGVIEW — The Washington state Department of Ecology, in a historic move, has required federal operators of eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers to create a plan to keep the waters cold enough for adult salmon survival.
Conservation groups said the “game-changing decision” is needed to protect endangered salmon species, which struggle when river temperatures exceed 68 degrees. Hydropower proponents said they are concerned that meeting the temperature standards could be unattainable without costly rate hikes for utility customers in hydropower-reliant areas, The Daily News reported.
"What this decision risks doing is saying, 'We are going to regulate the temperature of the river because there are dams there.' But the reality is even without the dams, those temperatures could be the exact same," said Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest River Partners, a group of utility districts, ports and businesses.
Ecology last week issued Clean Water Act 401 Certifications for four dams on the Lower Columbia River including Bonneville, John Day, McNary and The Dalles and four dams on the Lower Snake River including Little Goose, Ice Harbor, Lower Granite and Lower Monumental. The certification enables Ecology to work with federal dam operators to review studies and plans for meeting the state's water quality standards, which include a rule to keep river temperatures below 68 degrees.
The goal is to keep the water cool enough for adult salmon to survive their migration through the river to spawning habitat.
“Society is doing a lot of work restoring tributaries for spawning ... which is all really important. But if the river is too hot for adult salmon to migrate up, we have a huge problem,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director for Columbia Riverkeeper, a Hood River-based conservation group. He added that parts of the Columbia River routinely reach 72 degrees.
Most dams are certified when they receive their operating license. But the dams were built before the rules were in place, so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the federal dams, has been operating them without the certifications.
Riverkeeper opened an opportunity for certification with a 2013 lawsuit that required the Corps to seek oil discharge permits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Before the EPA could issue the permit, it had to make sure it met state standards.
"This is the first federal action that has prompted the state's certification requirements, so it's been our first opportunity to look at the dams and put these certifications in place," said Vince McGowan, Ecology's water quality program manager.
To lower water temperatures, the Corps could work on habitat projects to add trees to shade the river, or it could release cooler water from upstream dams, Miller said.
It could take up to two years before federal agencies release a detailed plan to meet the state's water temperature requirements, McGowan said.
“This is a really important first step for us to have that kind of relationship with the (federal) dams, with our state role,” McGowan said. “The other stakeholders and dam operators themselves will have opportunities to work out exactly what this means in the long run.”
— The Associated Press