Welcome to Save Our wild Salmon’s Hot Water Report 2021, Week 12, our final issue for this summer!
This summer, we’ve provided updates 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 return to their natal spawning grounds. We heard first-hand from scientists and other experts about challenges facing the Columbia and Snake rivers - and the opportunities we have to restore health to these rivers, and help recover healthy, resilient 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 in large part due to multiple harmful effects caused by the system of federal dams and reservoirs. The federal hydro-system creates conditions that harm and kill both juvenile and adult salmon and steelhead, including by elevating water temperatures in large, stagnant reservoirs in the summer months. As cold water species, these fish 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 migration disruption, increased metabolism, increased susceptibility to disease, reduced fecundity or reproductive potential, suffocation (warm water carries less oxygen) 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 an already bad situation for the Northwest’s emblematic fish even 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 almost certainly our only option for lowering water temperatures in this 140-mile stretch of river in southeast Washington State. Restoring the Snake River is one essential element 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 uphold our nation’s promises to Native American tribes, and to ensure prosperous communities across the Northwest.
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 each 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 horizontal line across the graph represents the 68°F “harm threshold” for adult and juvenile fish. Salmon and steelhead 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 effects.
Fortunately, water temperatures have begun to drop but at this time they still remain high - and harmful - for salmon and steelhead in the lower Snake and lower Columbia River reservoirs: On the lower Snake River, the waters in the Lower Monumental reservoir had the highest mean temperatures of 68.72°F on September 1st. The Little Goose reservoir had a mean temperature of 67.28°F, almost one degree below the harmful threshold (68°F). At this time the USGS has not released water temperature data from the lower Snake River reservoirs from September 2nd to September 7th. At this point, we expect the current temperatures reflected in the graph to continue and then cool toward the middle of September. So far this summer, all four reservoirs exceeded 68°F this summer for at least 40 to 67 days. The Lower Monumental reservoir has exceeded 68°F for at least 67 days. The Little Goose reservoir has exceeded 68°F for at least 66 days this summer.
Temperatures in 3 out of 4 lower Columbia River reservoirs have recently flattened out above 68°F. All reservoirs continue to exceed 68°F by between one degree; this will probably be the case through the middle of September. On September 5th, The Dalles reservoir had the highest mean temperature of 69.26°F. The John Day reservoir also had a highest mean temperature 69.26°F, on September 7th. The Bonneville reservoir had the second highest mean temperature of 68.90°F, on September 7th.
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. Legal Conflicts in the lower Snake River
by Miles Johnson, Columbia Riverkeeper, Senior Attorney
Another summer of brutally hot water, low salmon returns, and graphic fish kills points to an uncomfortable conclusion: the Columbia-Snake river hydro-system as it is currently operated by BPA and the Army Corps is incapable of complying with the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. In other words, the status quo is not only not working, it’s not even legal. Let’s cut through the fog of legal citations and lawyer-speak and look at what two of our nation’s most important environmental laws mandate with respect to Columbia Basin salmon. The Endangered Species Act essentially prohibits federal agencies (like BPA and the Army Corps) from making species go extinct. But that is precisely what the dams are doing, most dramatically with respect to Snake River salmon and steelhead. The rate at which Snake River fish survive their journeys down, and then back up, the dammed river is simply too low to prevent extinction or achieve recovery. That problem, in a nutshell, is why courts have repeatedly rejected federal plans (called “biological opinions” in ESA-speak) attempting to justify the dams’ compliance with the Endangered Species Act. Some backers of the Snake River dams have acknowledged this reality and asked past presidential administrations to remove salmon from the Endangered Species List. BPA and the Army Corps have taken a less direct approach: repeatedly putting forward plans that maintain the status quo but clearly violate the ESA, and defend those plans in court while salmon and steelhead inch closer to extinction. As multiple federal judges have hinted, only a major overhaul of the hydrosystem and its status quo operations will bring BPA and the Army Corps into compliance with the Endangered Species Act.
As required by the Clean Water Act, Oregon and Washington have set limits on Columbia and Snake river water temperatures to keep these rivers cool enough for salmon and steelhead. A recent report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) details how dams on the Snake River make the water too hot for salmon and exceed the Clean Water Act’s temperature limits. The Army Corps has fought for decades to keep the dams from being regulated under the Clean Water Act, and there’s a reason: dams on the Lower Snake River will continue violating water quality standards absent profound changes to their configuration and operation. Those changes may be coming, however, as EPA and the Washington Dept. of Ecology seem poised to issue new Clean Water Act permits that will force the Army Corps to consider ways to keep the rivers cool.
IV. Urgency to remove the four lower Snake River Dams
Historically, abundant Snake and Columbia River salmon and steelhead delivered vast cultural, economic, nutritional, and ecological benefits to the people and fish and wildlife of the Pacific Northwest. Not long ago, the Columbia Basin would experience millions of adult salmon and steelhead that flooded into the Columbia River Basin each year. Chinook, or King salmon, are the largest and richest of the salmonid species. They are also notably the primary food source (roughly 80 percent of their overall diet) of the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas. Columbia Basin chinook can spend five or more years in the Pacific Ocean before they return to freshwater to spawn.
Snake and Columbia Basin fish, however, are in crisis - thirteen distinct populations in the Columbia Basin are at risk of extinction today. The health of these populations has plummeted over time from historic levels that were once in the hundreds of thousands or millions, depending on the particular population. Snake River salmon and steelhead populations have been in a steady decline for many years; they are returning this year at some of their lowest levels ever.
Climate change increases the urgency to remove these four dams and restore this river. The frequency, duration, and intensity of high harmful water temperatures in the four lower Snake River’s reservoirs have been steadily increasing within the last several decades – with increasingly devastating impacts on out-migrating juvenile fish and adults returning from the Pacific Ocean to spawn. In 2015, for example, due to the combined effects of extremely hot air and water temperatures, low 2014-15 snowpack that led to low 2015 runoff, and the presence of dams and their reservoirs, at least 96% of endangered returning adult Snake River sockeye salmon died - a species with an already low population level - during their upriver migration through the lower Columbia and Snake Rivers.
This summer, we experienced another high water temperature in the lower Snake River. From June to September, all four lower Snake River’s reservoirs had waters above 68°F for over 40 to 67 days. The reservoir behind the Ice Harbor Dam registered the highest temperature we have seen this summer at 73.22°F on July 18, 2021. Lower Monumental Dam’s reservoir had a high temperature of 73.04°F on August 14, 2021, and the reservoir registered above 68°F for 67 days. The Little Goose Dam’s reservoir also had a high temperature of 73.04°F on June 27, 2021. Finally, from August 3 to August 4, 2021, the Lower Granite Dam’s reservoir had a high temperature of 71.96°F. 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), suffocation, and in the worst case - death.
Rising temperatures in the four lower Snake River’s reservoirs along with climate change impacts have resulted in lower survival and reproductive success for endangered salmon and steelhead. Earlier in July, Columbia Riverkeeper released video footage and images that show heat-stressed sockeye salmon returning to the Columbia and Snake rivers. These sockeye have large, open lesions and fungus and it is predicted that these sockeye would not be able to spawn, and will instead die of heat stress and disease. As of August 24, just 1 sockeye has returned to Idaho. This year, given the extremely low returns of sockeye, the Idaho Fish and Game are trapping the sockeye that arrive at Lower Granite Dam and hauling them by truck to an Idaho Fish hatchery as a precautionary conservation measure, resulting in 28 sockeye that have been trapped and hauled.
This summer, we have seen low numbers of chinook, steelhead and sockeye returns to the Columbia River and Snake River. We cannot let low returns of salmon and steelhead continue as extinction of these fish are near. We have an opportunity to make critical changes that ensure the survival of wild salmon and steelhead, and increase the resilience of rivers and our climate, and meet the needs of people and communities across the Pacific Northwest. Upon decades worth of scientific research, it is clear that restoring the lower Snake River will dramatically lower water temperatures and restore 140-mile of the river and 14,000+ acres of riparian habitat and again offer diverse habitats found in living rivers, including additional cold water refugia currently lost as a result of these reservoirs today.
Throughout our 2021 Hot Water Reports, we have identified key solutions and strategies to salmon recovery and restoring the lower Snake River. To protect, restore, and reconnect the freshwater habitats that salmon and steelhead depend upon, a few of the solutions and strategies include:
- Address the harmful effects (altered hydrograph, hot river temperatures, increase of predators, etc.) created by the federal hydro-system and now made worse by a changing climate in order to increase the resilience of these river systems and the fish themselves.
- Currently, help aid the migration of endangered salmon and steelhead and increase their survival in the near-term by using two methods of spill and reservoir drawdown. The plaintiffs view the requested injunction as “an emergency stop-gap measure and not enough alone to prevent extinction.” The best available science strongly supports lower Snake River dam removal as necessary to protect these populations from extinction and restore them to abundance.
- Help ensure that we meet our Treaty obligations to Native American Tribes in the Columbia Basin and currently support members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Youth Leadership Council in calling on President Biden to remove the four lower Snake River dams and bring long overdue Tribal Justice to Native Nations.
- Fully replacing the Lower Snake River hydrosystem energy dams with carbon-free, renewable, affordable, and salmon-friendly alternatives as well as help support and maintain an affordable energy system for Northwest people and communities. NW Energy Coalition’s 2018 Lower Snake River Dams Power Replacement Study shows convincingly that replacing the lower Snake River dams with a balanced portfolio of clean, renewable energy including solar, wind, energy efficiency, and storage is feasible, reliable, and affordable.
- Strengthen our region's transportation infrastructure and create more jobs. Dam removal is an opportunity to make smarter investments in rail, port and other transportation infrastructure to ensure farmers can continue to affordably move their goods to market. We have the opportunity to expand recreation, tourism, clean energy and transportation industries that can create thousands of family-wage jobs for people living along the Snake River.
Restoring the lower Snake River is our very best opportunity to restore endangered salmon and steelhead to abundance in the Northwest. Removing the four lower Snake River Dams will restore the Northwest’s native fish, help feed starving orcas, will save American taxpayer and Northwest energy consumer dollars; create thousands of jobs regionally and invest in communities; and sustain a clean, reliable and affordable energy system. Removing these costly dams and restoring this historic river and its wild fish is our nation’s greatest river and salmon restoration opportunity today.
LINKS TO RECENT NEWS:
- Inlander: Salmon face deadly hot waters along Columbia and Snake rivers as the call for dam removal grows (September 2, 2021)
- Seattle Times: Baby J pod orca ailing; whale-watch tours ordered to keep away (September 3, 2021)
- Seattle Times: Lower Snake River irrigators propose two-dam drawdown, breaking with some farmers and bargers (September 7, 2021)
- Past Hot Water Reports are archived here: Hot Water Reports - Compiled
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.