EPA, States, Tribes Tackle Mainstem Water Qualityby Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - December 1, 1999
The clock is ticking on a state-federal-tribal process intended to spell out mainstem Columbia-Snake river water quality problems, identify their sources and describe who's responsible for taking the actions necessary to achieve temperature and dissolved gas standards.
The impetus is the federal Clean Water Act but the effort has ramifications for Endangered Species Act populations and other aquatic life as well, according to Mary Lou Soscia of the Environmental Protection Agency.
During a Tuesday workshop staged to explain the "Total Maximum Daily Load" development process, she displayed a map of the Columbia Basin. It showed rivers and streams that are habitat for ESA listed species and waters that have been identified by the states as "impaired" by pollutants.
"There's about a 98 percent correlation between where we have impaired waters" and where there are listed fish, Soscia said. The TMDL will focus on water temperature (called by one EPA official the No. 1 pollutant in Northwest waters) and dissolved gas because of their impacts on fish and other aquatic life. Anadromous fish such as the listed salmon populations, as well as listed bull trout, are very temperature dependent, Soscia said.
"That is why temperature has become such a big issue in the Northwest -- because of the species of fish we have here," she said. The Columbia and lower Snake rivers are listed for temperature and, in some reaches, exceedances of dissolved gas standards.
The TMDL process is a step in CWA regulations intended to attain water quality standards that protect aquatic life, drinking water and other water uses. The states set their own pollution limits that must be as least as stringent as federal standards.
The first step requires the states to compile a 303(d) list of waters that do not meet water quality standards. Oregon, Idaho and Washington have largely completed those lists, prioritized them for TMDL development and agreed to schedules for completing the TMDLs.
Those schedules for the individual states do not necessarily mesh as regards the Columbia and Snake but EPA, the states and Colville and Spokane tribes are near an agreement to undertake the mainstem TMDL project concurrently. The Columbia flows from Canada into Washington but serves as the boundary of Oregon and Washington for its final 309 miles. The lower Snake River is bounded by Idaho and Oregon before flowing into Washington where it converges with the Columbia.
"No one state or tribe had the ability to pull this off," said Russell Harding of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. A memorandum of understanding has been created that outlines responsibilities for the development of what will actually be a set of TMDLs. That MOU has been signed by the EPA and Idaho. The newly appointed director of the Oregon DEQ has not had time to review the issue but is expected to sign, as is Washington, Harding said.
The TMDL's will "develop multiple (temperature) targets for multiple reaches" of the river, according to Rick Parkin, the EPA's project manager. Under the CWA, the states are responsible for developing the TMDLs, which the EPA then approves or disapproves.
A federal court settlement agreement obliges the state of Oregon to complete the TMDL process for the mainstem Columbia River by the end of 2001.
Parkin described the project as in its early phases. A work plan should be completed within the next few weeks. The scope includes the Columbia from its mouth to the Canadian border and the Snake from its confluence with the Columbia to its confluence with the Salmon River.
It will address all sources that impair water, including 11 federal and five private dams on the mainstem. They also include some 80 facilities in Washington, 63 in Oregon and 5 in Idaho that are "point sources, such as sewage treatment plant discharges, that require National Pollutant Discharge Elimination system permits. The completed TMDLs could require that the conditions of existing permits be modified.
The states have a common standard, 110 percent, for total dissolved gas, created by spill at hydroelectric projects. Exposure to gas can affect fish survival.
Since the source of the gas is known and the phenomenon quite is quite well understand, quantifying the problem won't be difficult, Harding said. It could be as simple as identifying the level of spill needed to hold total dissolved gas to desired levels.
Dam operators face a particular dilemma in that spill in many cases is staged to pass fish through dams in what is considered a much safer route than turbine passage.
"I'm not sure we can get to 110 percent and 80 percent fish passage efficiency," Harding said of a National Marine Fisheries Service goal.
Goals of decreasing temperature and gas could in some cases conflict, Parkin said. Attempting to decrease temperature by increasing flows, for example, could serve to increase gas by increasing the need to spill.
The contribution of the hydrosystem's dams and reservoirs to mainstem water quality problems is an issue being debated in the courts. A lawsuit charging the Corps of Engineers with operating the four dams and reservoirs in violation of Clean Water Act standards for temperature and dissolved gas is pending in federal court. Plaintiffs have asked that the Corps be declared in violation of the CWA and seek an injunction to direct the Corps to comply with water quality standards of the state of Washington and to set a schedule to resolve temperature and dissolved gas problems.
The Corps contends that much of the water quality problems in the lower Snake River occur regardless of the way the Corps operates the dams. For example, water temperature is affected by upstream contributions and, to a lesser degree, " the existence of dams also affects water temperature," according to a brief filed by the Corps earlier this fall.
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