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Commentaries and editorials

American Rivers Gives Dam Operators Low Marks

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 15, 2000

In a report released last week, American Rivers gave dam operators on the Snake and Columbia rivers poor marks for water quality and quantity during the 2000 juvenile salmon passage season.

The report says that federal dam managers violated both the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act because they failed to meet targets for water quantity in the Snake and Columbia Rivers too often during spring and summer months. It says they also failed to meet water temperature standards during summer months, but it gave the managers high marks for meeting those standards during spring months.

Grades for water quantity were based on whether the amount of water in the river met National Marine Fisheries Service's 1995 biological opinion flow targets. It gave the managers a grade of F for spring and summer water flows in both rivers.

"Their grades are so poor, it's time for a parent-teacher conference," said Justin Hayes of American Rivers. "This is a serious, long-standing problem. Every year the federal agencies fail to protect Snake River salmon and steelhead."

The organization said that when dam managers keep flows sufficiently high in the Snake and Columbia rivers it helps to flush juvenile salmon listed under the ESA downstream to the ocean and cooler water temperatures during the summer prevent salmon from becoming stressed.

For the Snake River, the spring flow target at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River for the period April 3 through June 20 is 96,250 cubic feet per second. American Rivers said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to meet that target 61 days, or 77.2 percent of the time during the spring, but it failed nearly all the time during the summer, June 21 through August 31, on 70 days or 97.2 percent of the days.

The BiOp flow target at McNary Dam on the Columbia River is 260 kcfs for the period April 20 through June 30 and 200 kcfs from July 2 through August 31. It failed to meet those targets in the Spring 69.4 percent of the days, or 50 days, and in the summer 96.8 percent of the days, or 60 days, says American Rivers.

NMFS set flow targets in its BiOp, but recognized that the actual amount of water in the river would be influenced on a year-to-year basis by winter snowpack, spring and summer weather conditions and competing water uses. Those year-to-year conditions could make it difficult in some years to meet the targets. 2000 was one of those years, especially during summer months.

The BiOp also established the Technical Management Team, which is made up of both fish managers from the states and the federal government, and of river operating agencies, including the Corps, the Bonneville Power Administration and the Bureau of Reclamation. TMT oversees the week to week flows in the Columbia River Basin and sets weekly flow targets for river operators to follow over the next week. TMT flow targets are based on a weekly average flow, not on the daily flow on which American Rivers is grading the river operators.

Rob Masonis of American Rivers said the practice of using weekly average flows is not biologically justified. "This is a convenient excuse to avoid delivering the water the salmon need," he said.

Even fish managers complained at TMT meetings this year that flow targets were not being met often enough due to spring flood control operations by the Corps. The Corps was not available to comment on the report this week.

According to American Rivers, the new draft BiOp released for review by NMFS in July maintains the "unacceptable status quo, requiring only flow targets, which can be ignored by the federal managers."

For water temperature, the report gave river operators an F for during the summer months, but an A for spring months. Standards set by Oregon and Washington under the federal Clean Water Act call for water temperatures in both the Columbia and Snake rivers to be no warmer than 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures never exceeded the standard in the Spring in either river, but they did on 40 days during the summer in the Snake River, or 55.6 percent of days. In the Columbia, temperatures exceeded the limit on 42 days, or 67.7 percent of the time.

"The continued poor performance of federal dam managers shows that they are struggling with their current assignments and are being granted too much discretion," said Rob Masonis of American Rivers. "The final Biological Opinion must require that flow targets be met both to aid migration and cool water during the summer. It's time to stop the charade of responsible river management and get the job done."

The information that makes up the report was gathered and is displayed on the Data Access in Real Time (DART) web page at

Link Information:
American Rivers:

American Rivers Gives Dam Operators Low Marks
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 8, 2000

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