Five conservation groups gave notice last week
that they will pursue a lawsuit against the federal Environmental Protection
Agency if the agency fails to finalize a pollution budget under the Clean Water
Act for the Columbia River and lower Snake River that it was near finalizing in
The groups’ primary concern is to prevent from
recurring the high water temperatures that hit the two rivers last year. Those
high temperatures that at times far exceeded the 20 degree Celsius limit (68
degree Fahrenheit) EPA has set for the rivers led to the devastation of the Snake River sockeye salmon run
into the Sawtooth Valley.
That run of salmon is listed as endangered
under the federal Endangered Species Act. Some 90 percent of the run died
before making it to Ice Harbor Dam, the most downstream dam on the Snake River,
and 96 percent died before Lower Granite Dam, the upriver dam. Just 1 percent
made it as far as their spawning grounds.
Overall, according to the groups, more than
250,000 sockeye were lost to the warm water in the two rivers, including
sockeye migrating into the Okanagan River.
“We need a comprehensive plan to deal with
dams’ impacts on water temperature, or we may be telling our kids stories about
salmon instead of teaching them to fish,” said Miles Johnson, attorney for
They are seeking completion of a Total Maximum
Daily Load budget under the CWA within 60 days or they are seeking a
settlement. If that doesn’t happen, the groups will file the suit in court
seeking an order to compel the EPA to issue the pollution budget in order to
protect salmon from the high water temperatures seen last year.
The groups include Columbia Riverkeeper, Snake
River Waterkeeper, Idaho Rivers United, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s
Association and the Institute for Fisheries Resources.
The public interest law firm Advocates for the
West (advocateswest.org) represents the groups.
The groups said that the EPA was nearing
completion of a TMDL when “dam operators pressured EPA to abandon the effort.”
They added that the pressure came when the EPA realized the cause of warm water
in the rivers was the dams.
The preliminary plan can be found at: http://columbiariverkeeper.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Preliminary-Draft-TMDL-Draft-6-30-03-editing-9-5-03.pdf
More recently in response to last year’s high
water temperatures the EPA noted that, with climate change, water temperature
is becoming a critical issue in the two rivers, the letter of intent says. In
fact, according to the complaint, the EPA has concluded that more needs to be
done to maintain temperatures below 20 degrees C.
“Despite EPA’s calls for more to be done to
maintain cooler temperatures and protect fish, the agency has failed to take
action to develop and implement a temperature plan,” the intent letter says.
“Our members’ livelihoods depend on healthy
salmon runs,” said Glen Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast
Federation of Fishermen's Associations and the Institute for Fisheries
Resources. “It’s simply unacceptable to let hot water kill otherwise-healthy
adult salmon before they can spawn.”