Dams and climate change are the leading cause of high temperatures in the Columbia and Snake rivers that are killing salmon, according to an EPA draft analysis. Now the state wants to get involved.
Summer temperatures in portions of the Columbia and Snake rivers are up by 1.5 degrees Celsius since 1960 because of the combined effects of climate change and dams, according to a new draft analysis by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Temperatures are so high, sometimes exceeding 70 degrees, that they kill migrating salmon.
The state Department of Ecology on Wednesday initiated a public comment period on proposed new regulations on federal dam operations. Ecology’s goal is to for the first time initiate work toward meeting state water-quality standards, including temperature, at federal dams on the Columbia and Snake. Washington has long had an uppermost temperature limit of 68 degrees (20 degrees Celsius) in state waters, but it’s never been enforced at federal dams.
“This is a big deal,” said Heather Bartlett, head of Ecology’s water-quality division. “We want for the first time to have parity at federal dams with the nonfederal dams. They are either meeting state standards, or they have set up a strategy to meet them.”
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It is up to dam operators to determine how they would come into compliance with state standards, under plans such as those already implemented at dams run by private investor-owned utilities, irrigation districts, public utility districts and municipalities.
“It’s a path, not a light switch,” Bartlett said of the compliance process, which is intended to strike a balance between environmental protection and energy generation.
But some were skeptical about how much can really be done.
Ritchie Graves, head of the hydropower division for the West Coast region at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the Snake historically heated up in summer above the standard before the dams were built, with temperatures nearing 79 degrees at its confluence with the Columbia. What can be done with the dams in place today to modify temperature already is being done, Graves said.
“It’s all well and good to say there is a new sheriff in town, [saying] we are going to get to 68 degrees, but I am not sure how you get there,” Graves said. “In the face of climate change, can you achieve that?”
The state wants to ensure its standards are met, but recognizes the value of regional hydropower generation, Bartlett said.
“The energy sector they fill is an important niche. I look at what we are doing as a good balance between the need to meet the state standard and the need to provide the region with cheap electricity,” she said.
Action by the state to regulate federal dams is sure to stoke ongoing controversy over the structures, and their effect on salmon and orcas. Those are already the subject of litigation, legislation and lobbying before the state Legislature this session.
Dams are important for hydropower, irrigation and barge transportation. But in summer their mileslong reservoirs can act like giant heat sinks. Portions of the rivers get hot — so hot they exceed in some places the state’s upper limit on temperature of 68 degrees for weeks at a time.
In examining water-quality data from 2011-2016, EPA’s Region 10 office found river temperatures in August to exceed 68 degrees more than 90 percent of the time at seven of 11 dams on the Columbia, and two of four dams on the Lower Snake. The John Day dam is the worst, with on average 65 days each summer in which the river exceeds 68 degrees, measured in waters just below the dam, known as the tailrace.
The agency looked at the source of the problem, and determined climate change and dams are the dominant forces raising river temperatures, with impacts that are an order of magnitude higher than any other influence. Nothing else, not inputs from tributaries, agricultural water withdrawals or permitted discharges to the river, came close.
In addition to dams constructed between 1932 and 1982, the warming trend due to climate change has significantly affected the rivers since the 1960s, and the impacts continue to increase, the agency found. Climate change has increased summer temperatures in the Columbia and Snake by 1.5 degrees Celsius since 1960 with .5 degree margin of error, according to the EPA.
The EPA also modeled potential water temperatures under different conditions, and found that taking out the four Lower Snake River dams can dent the problem, bringing temperatures there into compliance in August. Nothing, however, was projected to fix the Lower Columbia River in August, where the best option for fish is protecting refuges of cold water that currently exist, particularly in tributaries.
The EPA’s draft report was released to the state, tribes and federal agencies in December for peer review as part of a separate process long in the works for the EPA. The agency is also working for the first time to set temperature limits in the rivers under the Clean Water Act.
Columbia Riverkeeper was successful in 2014 and again in 2017 in winning settlements that are spurring the EPA to issue pollution discharge permits for the Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation for operations of dams on the Columbia and Snake.
It is the issuance of those permits, which Ecology now has under review, that opened the door for the state to regulate federal dam operators to work toward meeting all of Washington’s water quality standards. The public comment period closes on Feb. 19.
Next, EPA will issue its permit, with Ecology’s conditions, for public review.
Many are eager for Ecology to step into a regulatory role and work with dam operators to make progress on water temperatures at federal dams.
“The temperature standard has been violated for some time,” said Dennis McLerran, an attorney advising Columbia Riverkeeper and a former administrator of EPA Region 10 under the Obama administration.
The damaging effects of climate change and water temperature on salmon migration and spawning in the Columbia and Snake are well-known. Sockeye were slaughtered in the Columbia in 2015, a year of record heat and low flows, with thousands of fish dying before they could even make it back to their home tributaries to spawn.
Steelhead were the next to suffer, struggling home in hot water and record low numbers in 2017.
Scientists predict salmon are in for worse conditions as the climate bakes, particularly species at the southern edge of their range and traveling long distances to inland spawning grounds.
The conditions faced in 2015, when 95 percent of sockeye headed to the Stanley Basin of Idaho died in the Columbia, were extreme in terms of drought, low flows and hot weather.
But because of climate change, those could become typical conditions, scientists found in a 2018 paper published in the scientific journal Transactions of the American Fisheries Society.
That is because climate change means more winter moisture comes as rain rather than snow. Less snowpack leads to lower stream flows earlier in summer, even as air temperatures warm. Warmer water also expands the range of predators, and warm water aids the spread of disease. If the water is hot enough for long enough, fish eventually become lethargic and die.
Some federal agencies had a wait-and-see reaction to Ecology’s new role. At the Bureau of Reclamation, Michael Coffey, spokesman for the agency, said the bureau has an excellent relationship with Ecology, and was ready to work as required toward solutions.
“I am sure when they are ready to sit down and have conversations with us, we are more than happy to find … solutions for the challenge we face,” Coffey said.
Federal dam operators already are taking steps to moderate temperature at the dams, said David Wilson, a spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power from the dams. Cold water is released from the depths of the reservoir behind Dworshak Dam in Idaho in summer and provides significant cooling in the upper portion of the Lower Snake River. However, the cooling benefit diminishes toward the mouth of the Snake, the EPA analysis found.
Pumps also have been installed to move cool water in to fish ladders at Lower Granite and Little Goose dams, also on the Lower Snake, Wilson said. On the ground, habitat work on both rivers also is underway to address changing climate conditions and anticipate what fish and wildlife will need to survive, Wilson said.
Columbia Riverkeeper won another lawsuit last September, requiring the EPA to issue its first temperature limits for the Columbia and Snake. That work is ongoing, pending the result of an appeal from the U.S. Department of Justice to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
It was for the development of those temperature limits that the EPA’s Region 10 office undertook the assessment of the effects of climate change on the rivers.
McLerran said Ecology has an important role to play that can start making a difference now for orcas and salmon.
“This is a chance to get a seat at the table … to address more water quality issues that are really impacting the salmon and the orcas. There are likely things that could help that doesn’t necessarily call the ultimate question on dam removal that could make a difference in salmon and orca recovery.”
He envisions a gradual approach.
“Let’s take a hard look at all the things that make a difference, knowing management for the river is changing, and see what could be done. We may reach a determination that we can’t meet the standard, and then there are harder questions to come.”
The state Legislature already this session is smack in the middle of the state’s long-running conflict over the Lower Snake River dams, with a proposal from Gov. Jay Inslee to put $750,000 in the state budget to study the effects of dam removal. Ports and municipalities and public utility districts from Pasco to Lewiston have written Inslee strongly opposing the idea, which came out of his orca-recovery task force.
“After decades of using other arguments in their attempts to justify removing the four Lower Snake River Dams some environmental groups have latched on to the plight of the orcas,” the letters state. ” … these groups are using the orcas to play on the public’s sympathies.”
Both sides already are gearing up to make their case to lawmakers. Dam busters are organizing a Free the Snake Advocacy Day on Feb. 4, and the Washington Association of Public Utility Districts organized a “what you need to know” briefing for lawmakers about the Columbia and Snake river dams Wednesday, with briefings from dam operators and power marketers.
Meanwhile, a fight over dam operations on both rivers has ground on in the federal courts for more than 20 years. A new environmental impact statement — including an analysis of the effects of the dams in the era of climate change — was court-ordered in 2016, and is underway.
Federal agencies recently issued a new timetable for the review per an order from President Donald Trump. He demanded the new environmental impact statement for the federal hydropower system be completed by the end of 2020.
His order lopped a year off the schedule agencies had requested to give them enough time for their work. Trump’s new schedule also truncated time for public review and comment by eight months.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of attorney Dennis McLerran.