(CN) — It’s hard to cool river water heated to temperatures that kill salmon. So the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggested Oregon and Washington state change the designated “uses” of the Columbia and Snake Rivers so they are no longer expressly for salmon.
In a new report, the EPA outlined the legal rationale for lowering the bar on environmental standards when they are difficult to meet.
Oregon and Washington state have designated salmon habitat as one of the official uses of the rivers, which means the states must take action to ensure they are safe for salmon spawning and migration. Under certain circumstances, states can decide that certain “uses” of rivers, like designated salmon habitat, are not attainable.
Such “attainability analyses” are usually applied in situations like Superfund sites, where habitat has been so heavily polluted that the protected species that once lived there are no longer present. That’s not the case in the Snake and Columbia rivers, where every year, an average of 2 million salmon return to the rivers and streams of their birth.
“It’s absurd,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper. The environmental group is a plaintiff in the lawsuit that forced the EPA to produce its new report. “They’re suggesting that one option of addressing this conflict is to say that we’re not going to protect salmon from hot water and we’re not going to consider salmon a use of the river.”
The EPA notes in its report that whether to launch an attainability analysis is up to Oregon and Washington state, not the federal government. But with expected federal rollbacks that will make it harder for states to enforce regulations under the Clean Water Act, the suggestion could foreshadow events to come.
The EPA’s court-ordered report blamed sources outside its control for its inability to ensure that major rivers once teeming with salmon almost year-round remain habitable for fish. It pointed to warming air temperatures caused by climate change and increased human use of the reservoirs behind dams along the Canadian stretch of the Upper Columbia River.
But the report concluded the main culprits heating the rivers are the basin’s 14 federal dams, and the shallow reservoirs that lay slack behind them, soaking up the sun’s rays. And it found river water heated by dams to temperatures lethal to migrating salmon would not be sufficiently cooled by actions under consideration.
The Clean Water Act requires the federal government to measure pollution and determine the maximum amount of each pollutant — Total Maximum Daily Load — that can be allowed while still protecting species like salmon. In this case, the pollutant is heat, and although it’s been killing salmon since the government started building dams here nearly a century ago, federal agencies have never issued an official report evaluating heat pollution they create, as the act requires.
Until now. The EPA’s report evaluates all causes of elevated water temperature in the Columbia and Snake rivers and determine how much that pollution needs to be reduced. Here, the maximum water temperature that still ensures salmon survival is 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
Unlike most academic studies, this one is legally binding under the Clean Water Act.
The state of Washington issued rules requiring the report be part of the permitting process the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must undergo to operate its dams. The state has required the Corps to cool the rivers to temperatures salmon can survive. And now, Washington state has the formal assessment it needs to enforce those rules.
The rivers could be cooled by increasing the amount of water dam operators spill over instead of send through the turbines. They could also reduce the volume of water that sits behind dams in warm, shallow reservoirs. But the EPA report found that such actions are likely a half-measure. Government agencies have not modeled scenarios that would succeed in returning the rivers 68 degrees or colder.
There’s another proposal that has been debated for decades: breaching the four federal dams on the Lower Snake River. The action was called for by Washington state Governor Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force, which determined that the main problem facing endangered orca is lack of the Chinook salmon the whales eat. And a 2019 economic study by ECONorthwest found that the economic benefits of breaching the dams far outweighed those of keeping them operating.
VandenHeuvel said breaching the four Snake River dams is an obvious choice.
“The Snake River is so hot that we think the best and maybe only way to get to safe levels for salmon is to remove the four Lower Snake River dams,” VandenHeuvel said.
In February, the Army Corps released its draft environmental impact statement outlining its plan to avoid causing the extinction of salmon by operating dams in the Columbia and Snake rivers. The sixth such document ordered by the court in a dispute filed in 2001, it found that breaching the four dams on the Lower Snake River would “provide the highest benefits” to endangered salmon.
The rate of return for young salmon and steelhead migrating out to sea from the Lower Snake River would improve by 170%, the agency wrote. But it rejected that option, detailing the loss of clean electricity it would create.
The EPA suggested another path — changing the designated “uses” of the rivers so they are no longer expressly for salmon. In its report, the EPA outlined the legal rationale for lowering the bar on environmental standards when they are difficult to meet.
“One option for addressing the conflict created by the inability to achieve applicable water quality criteria at all times and all places is for the states to make changes to their applicable designated uses,” the agency wrote.
The EPA declined to clarify that statement, despite repeated requests to do so. The agency refused to answer any questions about its report.
The Washington Department of Ecology said it would take several weeks to form a response to the report, which is 85 pages plus 10 lengthy technical appendices.
Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality was still reviewing the report on Friday and couldn’t state a position on the EPA’s suggestion.
The agency’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Flynt, called the Columbia River “a critically important habitat for endangered species.” She said Oregon “is looking forward to working with our partners to address temperature reduction in the Columbia.”
Hopefully, VandenHuevel said, Oregon and Washington state will see the idea of managing rivers for dams instead of fish as a non-starter.
“To suggest that the rivers can no longer be used by fish, that salmon no longer belong in the rivers and that we’re not going to protect them is absurd and deeply cynical.”
The 60-day public comment period for the EPA report opened Thursday.