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EPA Withdraws Draft Water Quality Permits Sought From Washington Ecology For Columbia/Snake Dams
Posted on Friday, February 08, 2019 (PST)

A Washington state public review process that was to close February 19 for nine draft water quality permits at Columbia and Snake river dams took an unusual turn late last week when the federal government withdrew the permits without saying why.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent six draft National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits covering water quality issues, focusing on oil and grease discharges, to the Washington Department of Ecology in September and one more in October asking for 401 certifications under the federal Clean Water Act. (For background see CBB, Jan. 27, 2017, “Columbia Riverkeeper, Bureau Of Reclamation Reach Settlement On Pollution At Grand Coulee Dam”


However, EPA withdrew all nine permits and asked Ecology to return all “materials” it provided with the permits.


In a letter sent Feb. 1 to Heather Bartlett, Water Quality Program Manager at Ecology, the EPA officially withdrew the permits, but gave no explanation as to why it chose to retrieve them or as to if or when it would resubmit the permits to Ecology for approval.


The letter from Daniel Opalski, Director of EPA’s Region 10 office of Water and Watersheds in Seattle, said “Please return to us the materials that we provided with our certification requests. When we determine that a renewed request for water quality certification is appropriate, we will be in further communication with appropriately updated materials.”


“I’m surprised at EPA’s unusual request,” said Maia Bellon, director of Ecology, in an email to the Seattle Times. “We’ve asked EPA to explain their motives but I am concerned that this may signal the federal government backing away from a commitment to protect the water quality of the Columbia and Snake rivers. Washington state has no intention of abandoning our rivers and our salmon. We have no plans to halt our current public comment period.”


Bartlett, Ecology’s water quality manager, sent a return letter Feb. 5 to Opalski seeking the reason EPA was withdrawing the permits, saying “federally-issued NPDES permits require Section 401 certification and must meet all federal and state water quality standards.” She confirmed that Ecology intends to complete the public process. As of today, Ecology has yet to receive EPA’s answer.


Ecology currently regulates water temperature and total dissolved gas at federal and non-federal Columbia/Snake River dams and “we’re looking for the federal dams to have parity with all the other dams in the state,” said Colleen Keltz, spokesperson for Ecology. “We want the same standards at all the dams.”


Ecology opened the public process Jan. 20 for a 20-day period that closes Feb. 19. Keltz said that Ecology would leave the public process open pending an answer to Bartlett’s letter to the EPA. Keltz added that all the materials provided by EPA are part of the public process and copies will and must be kept by the agency.


Sept. 19, 2018, the EPA requested preliminary certification from Ecology for Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day and McNary dams on the lower Columbia River. It followed up Sept. 20 asking for certification for Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams on the lower Snake River. All eight dams are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. On Oct. 4 the EPA asked for preliminary certification for Grand Coulee Dam, which is operated by the Bureau of Reclamation.


The EPA asked for a response to all the permits within 30 days.


The public process has been a long time in the making, somewhat affected by the 35-day partial government shutdown. Picking up where EPA sent the draft NPDES permits to Ecology, the timeline is:

-- Oct. 12, Ecology asked the EPA for more time to complete its approval process, with EPA agreeing to a Dec. 18 deadline,

-- Ecology asked for 45 more days Dec. 7,

-- EPA extended the time Dec. 14 to Feb. 1,

-- EPA furloughed its staff that was working with Ecology Dec. 28,

-- At the end of the partial government shutdown, Jan. 25, Ecology asked for another extension to complete the work,

-- Jan. 28, EPA grants an extension to Feb. 28,

-- Jan. 30, Ecology opens public comment period that is to end Feb. 19,

-- Feb. 1, EPA withdraws its requests for 401 certification at all nine federal dams.


Ecology’s public comment period is announced at


When asking for one of the extensions, a Dec. 7 letter from Bartlett to Opalsky said that “Our work is further complicated by several ongoing efforts on the Columbia and Snake Rivers that will impact the certifications you have requested; the negotiations for the federal Biological Opinion for the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) and the temperature total maximum daily load (TMDL) that your agency is doing for the Columbia and Snake Rivers.


“Our hope is that this period of time will allow you to issue your TMDL, allow Ecology to better understand the federal biological opinion settlement, and work with you and the federal agencies that operate the nine facilities so that Ecology can issue 401 certifications that are workable for the federal agencies while protecting Washington’s waters,” she said, adding emphatically that “Washington is not waiving our 401-certification authority and we have no desire to do so.”


The states of Washington and Oregon had submitted temperature Total Maximum Daily Load documents for the dams to the EPA, but in 2000, the states and others in a memorandum of understanding with the EPA, agreed that the federal agency would develop the temperature TMDLs and that the states would be responsible for total dissolved gas TMDLs. The EPA has failed during the 18 year period to develop the temperature limits.


In October, U.S. District Court in the Western District of Washington ordered the EPA to set temperature limits at dams in the Snake and Columbia rivers to protect threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead. Judge Ricardo Martinez issued his order Oct. 17, 2018.


He said that both plaintiffs and defendants in the case agree that the potential causes for increased water temperatures in the two rivers “appropriately lies on the presence of dams and point source dischargers located on both rivers.”


Martinez gave the EPA 30 days to approve state temperature limits, or 30 more days to develop temperature TMDLs on its own if it rejects the state-submitted TMDLs.


The temperature TMDL is a federal CWA pollution budget designed to protect salmon from hot water in rivers. According to the order, the presence of high temperatures in the Columbia and Snake rivers led Washington and Oregon – both for the first time in 1996 – to place both rivers on their CWA Sec. 303(d) lists of impaired waters.


Washington’s current standards require that temperatures must stay below 60.8-68 degrees F depending upon the time of year, location, and fish present. Oregon’s ranges from 55.4 degrees F for some fish spawning areas from the months of October to April, to 68 degrees F year-round.


EPA has appealed the order to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.


Also see:


-- CBB, February 1, 2019, “Washington Ecology’s Draft EIS Raises Gas Cap To Allow More Spill For Fish At Columbia/Snake Dams,


-- CBB, January 11, 2019, “Following Presidential Directive, Feds Shorten Columbia/Snake Hydrosystem EIS Schedule By One Year,”


-- CBB, December 21, 2018, “Parties Sign Agreement On Flexible Spill For Fish Passage At Columbia/Snake Dams,”


-- CBB, October 26, 2018, “Federal Court Orders EPA To Complete Water Temperature Protections For Columbia/Snake Salmonids,”


--CBB, April 26, 2016, “Conservation Groups File Notice To Sue EPA Over Columbia/Snake Water Temperatures,”


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