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EPA Urges Corps to Meet Water Standards

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, August 4, 2000

The Environmental Protection Agency is demanding that the Army Corps of Engineers redouble its efforts to meet Clean Water Act standards on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

How the Corps decides to attempt to do that will have major implications for the river system, so the directive, contained in an EPA letter sent to the Corps this week, once again calls into question the viability of the four lower Snake River dams.

The Corps' approach so far has minimized actual cost of breaching those dams, the EPA said. It is demanding the Corps develop cost estimates for meeting water quality standards with the dams in place.

Without telling the Corps how to meet its obligations, acting regional EPA Administrator Charles Findley said his agency was prepared to "elevate" the issue to the White House's Center for Environmental Quality "if needed."

"We continue to strongly urge that the Corps make a strong, unqualified commitment to identifying and implementing the measures necessary to reduce exceedances of water quality standards at Corps facilities," said EPA's Monday letter, which environmental groups leaked to the press on Thursday.

The key standards are water temperatures and dissolved gases, both of which harm fish when they are too high. Dams such as the four on the lower Snake River increase temperature and dissolved gases above acceptable levels, environmental groups charged in a lawsuit filed last year.

Citing multiple court cases, Findley reminded the Corps of its legal obligation to meet water quality standards just like other dam operators.

An earlier letter from the Corps to EPA indicates otherwise.

"As a matter of policy, not as a legal requirement, the Corps complies with applicable water quality standards to the extent practicable in the operation of multiple purpose water resource projects," said Brig. Gen. Carl Strock in his June 5 letter.

"To our knowledge, it is presently not practicable to modify existing projects basin-wide to meet temperature standards," Strock said, noting that by releasing water from Dworshak reservoirs it was possible to help cool the river for fish.

"I am sure you can appreciate the balancing the Corps must do in order to avoid jeopardizing listed species, meet current water quality standards or modifications and provide for other uses served by Corps projects," Strock said.

Findley, however, did not seem pleased. "To date, very little in the way of substantive measures to attain water quality standards for temperature has been brought to the Water Quality Plan by the Corps or any of the other action agencies," Findley said.

And, he added, discussions with the Corps about Dworshak water releases during the late summer "were lackluster, with little or no support or coordination from the Corps for a solution."

The EPA also continues to have "serious concerns" with the Corps' approach to water quality standards on the lower Snake River, saying the Corps needs to explain how much it will cost to meet water quality standards with the four dams in place.

"Failing to include the costs of improving water quality could have the effect of seriously under-representing the costs of retaining dams, and therefore overpricing the costs of dam removal in relative terms," Findley said.

The EPA letter heartened environmental groups, which are also displeased with the Corps' attempts to improve water quality and the lack of detail in last week's federal hydrosystem plan about how the government will meet state water laws.

"The Corps continues to believe that the Clean Water Act is voluntary for them," said Tim Stearns at the National Wildlife Federation in Seattle. "I just want them to lay out how they are going to improve gas and temperature (levels) -- tell us how they are going to do it and put the dollars out there and we'll compare that to the alternative measures."

Mike Lee
EPA Urges Corps to Meet Water Standards
Tri-City Herald, August 4, 2000

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