Welcome to Save Our wild Salmon’s Hot Water Report 2021. During the summer, this weekly report will provide an update on real-time water temperatures in the lower Snake and Columbia river reservoirs via graphs and analyses, a report on the highest weekly water temperature at the forebay/reservoir of each dam, and the status of adult returns for the different salmon and steelhead populations as they make their way back to their natal spawning grounds. We’ll share information from scientists, fishers, guides, advocates, and other experts about the challenges facing the Columbia and Snake rivers - and opportunities we have to restore healthy rivers and to recover abundant fish populations and the many benefits they deliver to the Northwest’s culture, economy, and ecology.
The once-abundant anadromous native fish populations that call the Columbia-Snake River Basin home are struggling to survive primarily due to multiple harmful effects caused by the system of federal dams and their reservoirs. The federal hydro-system creates conditions that harm and kill both juvenile and adult fish, including by elevating water temperatures in the large, stagnant reservoirs, especially in the summer months. As cold water species, these salmon and steelhead begin to suffer harmful effects when water temperatures exceed 68° Fahrenheit. The longer and higher temperatures rise above 68°F, the greater the harm, including disruption in their migration, increased metabolism, increased susceptibility to disease, reduced fecundity or reproductive potential (by reducing egg viability), and in the worst case - death.
These harmful hot water episodes above 68 degrees in the Columbia and Snake Rivers are increasing in duration, frequency, and intensity. Our changing climate is making a very bad situation for the Northwest’s iconic fish worse. Our region and nation must take urgent action to lower these high temperatures - or scientists tell us that we will lose these species forever. Restoring a freely flowing lower Snake River by removing its four federal dams is our best and very likely only option for lowering water temperatures in this 140-mile stretch of river in southeast Washington State. Restoring the Snake River is one essential part of what must be a larger regional strategy to protect and rebuild healthy, abundant salmon and steelhead populations in order to benefit other fish and wildlife populations, including critically endangered Southern Resident orcas, to honor tribal rights, and to ensure prosperous communities across the Northwest.
Will you be on the river this summer? Do you have a story or photo you would like to share? Please send them to Martha Campos
The Hot Water Report is a joint project of the Save Our wild Salmon Coalition, Washington Sierra Club, Columbia Riverkeeper, Idaho Rivers United, National Wildlife Federation, Snake River Waterkeeper, Northwest Steelheaders, Defenders of Wildlife, and Endangered Species Coalition.
II. READING THE DATA - Lower Snake and Columbia River Temperatures
The daily mean temperature at the four reservoir forebays (immediately upstream from the dam) in the lower Snake River (above) and the lower Columbia River (below) for 2021 is represented with solid lines and their 10-year average (2011-2021) temperatures with dashed lines of the same color. The dotted line across the graph represents the 68°F “harm threshold” for adult and juvenile fish. Salmon and steelhead begin to suffer harmful effects when water temperatures exceed 68° Fahrenheit. The longer temperatures remain above 68°F and the higher the temperatures rise above 68°F, the more severe the potential effects, including: increased metabolism, increased susceptibility to disease, reduced fecundity or reproductive potential, and/or death.
Water temperatures remain high on the lower Snake and lower Columbia River reservoirs: Once again this week, all reservoirs exceed the 10-year average for this time of the year. Throughout this week on the lower Snake River, Ice Harbor’s reservoir has consistently maintained mean temperatures above 71°F, and with a high mean temperature of 71.96°F on July 10, 2021. The Lower Monumental Dam had high mean temperatures of 70.52°F.
On the lower Columbia River, current reservoir temperatures are significantly above the 10-year average for this time of the year, and all reservoirs registered temperatures above 68°F. The Dalles Dam and the John Day Dam had the highest mean temperature of 71.06°F, and the Bonneville Dam had the second highest mean temperature of 70.88°F.
A note on the lower Snake River Water Temperature Graph: The mean water temperature data from these reports comes from the USGS Current Conditions for Washington State and the 10-year average water temperature data comes from the Fish Passage Center. USGS began recording water temperatures at Ice Harbor and Lower Monumental on June 16, 2021, Little Goose on June 19, 2021, and Lower Granite on June 18, 2021. Although we are not able to compare spring water temperatures to summer water temperatures, we can see June temperatures rising above the 10-year average and all water temperatures in the lower Snake River are above 60°F.
III. WEEKLY HIGH TEMPERATURES: 7/7-7/13
On the lower Snake River this week, all reservoirs registered high temperatures above 68°F for multiple days. Ice Harbor Dam reservoir registered the highest temperature at 72.32°F - significantly above the level that coldwater fish require. Little Goose and Lower Monumental Dams had the second highest temperature at 71.06°F.
On the lower Columbia River, all reservoirs registered high temperatures above 69°F for multiple days. The Dalles and the John Day Dams had the highest temperature this week at 71.42°F, followed closely by the Bonneville Dam with a high temperature of 71.24°F.
IV. Nez Perce Tribe’s “Snake Basin Chinook and Steelhead Quasi-Extinction Threshold” Analysis
Since time immemorial, the Nez Perce Tribe, also recognized as the Nimiipuu people, have been “connected to the lands and waters of modern-day Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and Montana long before the creation of the Nez Perce Reservation.”1 As a sovereign nation within the United States, the Nez Perce Tribe retains the “inherent right to fish at usual and accustomed fishing stations, and hunt, gather, and graze livestock on open and unclaimed lands, all outside of the reservation boundary.”1 However, due to “colonial encroachment, dam construction, and non-tribal fishing,” the numbers of traditional fishing sites for the Nez Perce Tribe and the number of fish have declined.2 The Nez Perce Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management is a critical program that protects and enhances fishing rights reserved by the Tribe in its treaties with the United States.3 Notably, the Department of Fisheries Resources Management successfully managed to bring back Snake River Fall chinook from the brink of extinction, re-established coho salmon, once extirpated from the Snake River Basin, and has become one of the largest and most successful tribal fisheries programs in the United States.3
Earlier this year, the Department of Fisheries Resources Management presented their analysis called “Snake Basin Chinook and Steelhead Quasi-Extinction Threshold Alarm and Call to Action.” The analysis indicates that nearly half of the wild spring chinook populations in the Snake River Basin have crossed a critical threshold known as the Quasi-Extinction Threshold (QET), signaling they are nearing extinction and without intervention, many may not persist. In addition, the river’s steelhead populations also face alarming threats to their continued existence.
To understand what Quasi-Extinction Threshold (QET) means, the department outlined several definitions including: QET means 50 or fewer spawners on the spawning grounds for 4 consecutive years, and the QET also signifies that adult salmon abundance in a population nearing absolute extinction and the probability of recovery is low without substantial intervention.4 During the ‘Salmon Orca Summit’ in July 2021, Dave Johnson, Manager of the Nez Perce Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management, presented this analysis and stated, “Quasi-Extinction means, aside from biological terminology, you are running out of options. When you have fewer than 50 fish on spawning grounds, the genetic diversity is really limited. Your ability to pull these fish out of inbreeding depression and other stochastic type risks is really limited. Any type of environmental hazard can cause havoc when you have fish populations that are so low. We are certainly running out of management options.”5
The analysis starts with a bar graph depicting the management goals and thresholds for the Snake River chinook salmon and Snake River steelhead returns. The desired goal for a harvestable and healthy wild chinook salmon population is 179,000.4 The minimum abundance for wild chinook salmon is 29,250, and the critical threshold, also known as the Quasi-Extinction Threshold (QET) is 1,850 wild chinook.4 Desired steelhead numbers are 137,480, followed with 20,000 as minimum abundance, and a QET of 1,200.4
The graphs also share the yearly forecast returns for wild Snake River chinook salmon and steelhead, which for the Snake River steelhead, the 2020-2021 forecast is 14,450 wild steelhead. The Snake River wild chinook salmon’s 2021 forecast is 8,150, but the actual returns so far this summer are only around 6,000 wild fish.4,5
For the spring and summer chinook populations, the graph above reflects the numbers of spawners in all 31 populations listed under the Endangered Species Act in the Snake River Basin. The department modeled the natural-origin spawner abundance estimates for Snake River Basin populations relative to the QET (dash line meaning 4 years below 50 fish) for the last 10-years (2011-2020).4 The dots on the graph signifies how many spawners were on the spawning grounds in that year.5 The red dots indicate that there were 50 or fewer spawners, but more importantly, the red title for that population indicates that there have been 50 or fewer natural origin spawners on the spawning grounds for four consecutive years.5 During the last four consecutive years, 13 (42%) of the 31 populations had more than 4 years of abundances below the QET.4
Similar to the analysis above, for the Summer Steelhead populations, these graphs reflect the numbers of spawners in all 16 populations, for which there was data, of the 25 listed under the Endangered Species Act in the Snake River Basin. The department modeled the natural-origin spawner abundance estimates for Snake River Basin populations relative to the QET for the last 10-years (2011-2020).4 During the last four consecutive years, 3 (19%) of the 16 populations had more than 4 years of abundances below the QET.4
Using the current trends, the department created a model to forecast future population levels for both Snake River spring and summer chinook salmon and Snake River summer steelhead. The department “found that the chinook salmon populations are declining about 19% each year, and it is predicted that by 2025, 77% of spring and summer chinook populations in the Snake River Basin are predicted to be at or below the Quasi-Extinction threshold in the Snake River Basin” stated Dave Johnson.5 The model clearly shows that 77% of the natural-origin spring and summer chinook populations in the Snake River Basin will be closer to extinction within the next 5 years.
The department also found that the summer steelhead populations are declining by approximately 18% each year and predictions show that by 2025, 7 (44%) summer steelhead populations are predicted to drop below 50 spawners within the next 5 years.4
The Snake and Columbia River Basin contains the best available habitat for salmon populations to recover to any significant level of abundance. However, with predictions pushing the populations below 50 spawners, the four Snake River dams are a major factor preventing salmon from reaching spawning grounds. They also kill significant numbers of juvenile (smolts) and adult fish, as the dam’s reservoirs create large, stagnant pools that absorb heat from the sun, reaching lethal temperatures for salmon. Notably, they also support large populations of predatory fish such as bass and pikeminnow that eat out-migrating smolts.
In his presentation at last week’s ‘Salmon Orca Summit,’ Dave Johnson stated, “We are going through some big problems now. It’s been 100 plus degrees in the Snake River Basin. There are really hot temperatures, and the flows are down to 60% of what they should be, so it’s very hot and dry conditions out there for the fish. And with the stochastic risks, the demographic risks that fish face right now, you got one bad year like this...you don’t have any fish left.”5
The department ends its analysis with a series of recommended actions, including “improving survival at multiple life stages needed and seeking actions sufficient to address the current crisis and help salmon thrive,” such as the Rep. Simpson’s Columbia Basin Initiative.4
For more information about Rep. Simpson’s Columbia Basin Initiative and the regional conversation that he’s triggered with it, please visit SOS’ Urgency and Opportunity Resource Page.
1. Nez Perce Tribe History: Traditional Ways and Treaties
2. Nez Perce Tribe: Cultural Resource Program
3. Nez Perce Tribe: Fisheries Resources Management: DFRM-Management-Plan-2013-2028.pdf (nezperce.org)
4. Snake Basin Chinook and Steelhead Quasi-Extinction Threshold Alarm and Call to Action (2021)
5. Salmon and Orca Summit 2021(July 8, 2021)
LINKS TO RECENT NEWS:
- Seattle Times: Historic summit of tribes across Pacific Northwest presses dam removal on Inslee, Biden, Congress (July 9, 2021)
- The New York Times: Like in ‘Postapocalyptic Movies’: Heat Wave Killed Marine Wildlife en Masse (July 9, 2021)
- Lewiston Morning Tribune: Tribes call for action on salmon, dams (July 8, 2021)
- NW Public Broadcasting: ‘The Very Essence Of Our Being’: Northwest Tribes (And Politicians) Gather To Discuss Future Of Salmon (July 8, 2021)
- Spokesman-Review: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says dam breaching must ‘remain on the table,’ benefits of four Lower Snake River dams replaceable (July 8, 2021)
- Spokesman-Review: ‘Don’t give up on this’: At summit, tribal leaders urge action on dams to give salmon ‘the right to exist’ (July 7, 2021)
- Seattle Times: Record heat, drought threaten even the toughest survivors: L25, the oldest orca, and the winter Chinook she depends on (July 7, 2021)
- The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians of the United States Resolution (May 2021)
Martha Campos is the Hot Water Report Coordinator with Save Our wild Salmon this summer while she resides on Kizh/Tongva ancestral lands in California. Martha holds a BA from the University of California, Davis in Native American Studies (and two minors: Environmental Policy, Analysis, and Planning and Climate Science and Policy) and is a queer, non-binary person of color with ancestral roots in Mexico.