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Dams Hurt River Quality, the EPA Says

by Brent Hunsberger
The Oregonian, April 28, 2000

The agency criticizes alternatives to dam breaching suggested by the Army Corps of Engineers

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Thursday that four lower Snake River dams harm river quality, threaten endangered salmon and might best be breached to comply with the federal Clean Water Act.

The EPA found the corps' $20 million, four-year study of ways to improve salmon survival inadequate, according to an agency letter obtained by The Oregonian. It called the corps' three proposed alternatives to dam breaching "unacceptable" and found that, in the absence of more analysis, breaching loomed as the best way of restoring health to the Snake River.

"We think the dams have an impact, and we think they need to comply with the Clean Water Act and state water quality standards," said Chuck Clarke, EPA regional administrator in Seattle, on Thursday. "We didn't say breaching is the only alternative. We said, you didn't deal with (water quality) in any alternative. It may be that those alternatives, with some additional work, might address water quality."

Although officials from both agencies pledged to work out their differences this year, the EPA's findings point to the potentially large and problematic roles of the Clean Water Act and the EPA in the region's dams deliberations -- a role the White House will likely be asked to clarify.

This week another powerful federal agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, disclosed that it would propose leaving dams in place while it ordered fish-recovery measures to be taken over the next five to 10 years.

Doug Arndt, chief of the corps' fish management division, said the EPA's sharp comments took the agency by surprise, because it based its environmental assessment on protecting salmon and not on overall river health.

Arndt said he doubted the agencies would reach agreement about the EPA's key contention -- that dams, by pooling water, elevate water temperatures beyond levels considered safe for young, migrating salmon. The EPA's drive to bring Snake River's temperatures within Washington state's standard of 68 degrees belongs outside the dam-breaching debate, he said.

"It's not practical," Arndt said. "It's unachievable. Even if the dams were not there, the state standards would not be met."

If the EPA and the corps fail to resolve their differences before the corps selects a dam-management plan this fall, the EPA can appeal to the White House.

The EPA is the second federal agency to raise questions about the dams. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service late last year said breaching the four dams would be the best way to restore ecological health in the Snake River.

The Clean Water Act requires the federal government to set safe standards for temperature, dissolved gases, dissolved oxygen and other water-quality measures. It also gives citizens the right to enforce them. It has strong enforcement powers, and steep fines for noncompliance have been common, nationally, since the act's inception in 1977.

But the EPA's power to force another federal agency such as the corps to comply with the act remains unclear, observers say. Still, the EPA's position adds political and legal momentum to conservationists' efforts to force the corps to remove the dams to preserve water quality.

"The federal family needs to have its story together," said Heather Weiner, senior legislative counsel for Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund. "If one arm of the feds is saying to another arm of the feds 'You're wrong,' that makes them legally vulnerable."

Judge rules Last month, conservationists earned a courtroom victory when a federal judge ruled the corps must manage the dams in compliance with the Clean Water Act. The lawsuit, filed last year by a coalition of conservation groups and supported by the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe, seeks to force the corps to lower water temperature and reduce dissolved gases.

The court left open the question of whether the dams violate the act. But observers say the EPA ruling will make it difficult for the corps to argue that the dams don't adversely affect water quality.

"It certainly doesn't help the corps that EPA is saying, 'C'mon let's be real: The dams are warming up the water,' " said Craig Johnston, founder of the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center at the Lewis & Clark College's Northwestern School of Law. "EPA is perceived to know more about water quality impacts than the corps does."

Water temperatures higher than 68 degrees can harm salmon and make them more vulnerable to disease, scientists say. High levels of dissolved gases, such as nitrogen, can create in fish a condition similar to the bends.

Dams are not the only cause of high temperatures. But a 1998 analysis by the EPA found that the dams nearly double intensity and duration of temperature violations.

Altering the dams to reduce water temperatures, conservationists say, could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and hit taxpayers, electric ratepayers and farmers. Such strategies could include reducing irrigation withdrawals by Idaho and Washington farmers to speed water flows downriver and to limit the time water spends warming behind the dams.

It also could include retrofitting the dams so they draw cool water from their reservoirs' depths.

In its draft environmental impact statement, the corps declared that the Snake River's water temperatures had cooled since it built four dams in the 1960s and 1970s and turned the formerly free flowing river into a series of reservoirs. EPA's review found that conclusion "flawed and misleading." The EPA said the corps' selective use of data and study manipulations led to a false and insupportable conclusion.

The EPA said the corps used imprecise temperature readings made by eye from a thermometer that measures water entering dam turbines. But it ignored electronic measurements of temperatures taken on either side of each dam, the EPA said.

Using those measurements, the EPA found temperatures at Ice Harbor Dam exceeded Washington's standard for more than 83 days on five occasions since 1980. Temperatures at Lower Granite Dam exceeded state limits for more than 85 days on two occasions.

By comparison, the EPA found that temperature readings taken at Sacajawea, Wash., in 1956 exceeded today's standards for 66 days.

Brent Hunsberger
Jonathan Brinckman contributed to this report
Dams Hurt River Quality, the EPA Says
The Oregonian, April 28, 2000

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