Court orders EPA to write temperature control
plans for Columbia, Snake
A federal appeals court has ordered the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency to finalize a long-overdue plan to lower water
temperatures for endangered fish in the Columbia and Snake
The ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is likely to
intensify the ongoing debate over breaching four Lower Snake
River dams in Eastern Washington to increase salmon and
Environmental and commercial fishing groups sued the EPA in 2017
to protect Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead from dangerously
high river temperatures. Water exceeding 68 degrees is
considered particularly lethal for the fish, causing them to
struggle migrating upstream and leaving them susceptible to
The plaintiffs — including Columbia Riverkeeper, Snake River
Waterkeeper, Idaho Rivers United, the Institute for Fisheries
Resources and Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s
Associations — highlighted the summer of 2015, when an estimated
250,000 Snake River sockeye salmon died before they could spawn.
Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper,
said the slack water reservoirs behind hydroelectric dams on the
rivers are a major culprit when it comes to heating water.
“The reservoirs have created this hot water problem, and climate
change is pushing it over the edge,” VandenHeuvel said. “We need
solutions quickly, and they need to be big solutions.”
Under the Clean Water Act, states are required to identify and
issue pollution controls for imperiled waterways. The standards
— known as “Total Maximum Daily Load,” or abbreviated TMDL — can
address high levels of specific pollutants, such as nitrogen, or
conditions such as water temperature or turbidity.
Oregon and Washington reported in the mid-1990s that numerous
segments of the Columbia and Snake rivers failed to meet
temperature standards. In 2000, the states entered into an
agreement with the EPA to produce a temperature plan for the
The agency published a draft TMDL in 2003. However, it was never
finalized and no progress has been made by either the states or
EPA since then.
A Seattle district judge ruled in 2018 that the EPA is required
by law to issue the plan. The appeals court upheld that decision
on Dec. 20, giving the agency 30 days.
“Because Washington and Oregon have conclusively refused to
develop and issue a temperature TMDL for the Columbia and Snake
Rivers, the EPA is obligated to act,” Circuit Judge Margaret
McKeown wrote in her opinion for the appeals court. “The time
has come — the EPA must do so now.”
A spokeswoman for the EPA said she the agency cannot comment on
The ruling also notes that water temperatures are projected to
rise with increased human activity on the rivers, and that 65%
of remaining salmon and steelhead populations face a high risk
VandenHeuvel said the groups are looking for a “comprehensive,
science-based plan that looks at all of the options,” including
possible dam removal.
“There should be a serious analysis of removal of Snake River
dams, due to their impact on hot water and salmon,” he said.
Nic Nelson, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, said hot
water in the Lower Snake and Columbia rivers has been a year-in,
year-out problem for endangered salmon.
“This victory will create more protections for endangered
species that are an indelible part of our Northwest way of life,
culture, economy and heritage,” Nelson said.
Coincidentally, the court’s water temperature ruling came out on
the same day as a $750,000 study from Washington Gov. Jay
Inslee’s office weighing the pros and cons of breaching Ice
Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams on
the lower Snake River.
The dams not only generate electricity, but provide irrigation
water and allow farmers to ship their crops via barges, as
opposed to congested highways or railroads. Agriculture and
industry groups have argued the cost and disruption to
businesses and local communities from breaching dams would be
A spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association,
which represents ports, businesses and economic interests on the
river, said the group is aware of the court ruling, but did not
have further comment.
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