the film


Commentaries and editorials

Environmental Group Sues Army Corps
Over Pollution from Columbia River Dams

by George Plaven
Capital Press, December 8, 2021

Temperatures higher than 68 degrees can cause stress
and disease among salmonids, leading to significant die-offs.

An adult sockeye salmon photographed in the Columbia River near Drano Lake in Washington in July of 2015 covered in fungus caused by thermal stress. (USGS photo) PORTLAND -- An Oregon environmental group is suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers claiming the agency pollutes the Columbia River with heated water, oil and other toxic chemicals at three hydroelectric dams between Portland and the Tri-Cities in southeast Washington.

Columbia Riverkeeper filed the lawsuit on Dec. 8. It alleges the Corps has failed to obtain permits regulating pollutants discharged into the Columbia River at The Dalles, John Day and McNary dams, in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

Miles Johnson, senior attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper, said the dams are making the river too warm for endangered salmon and steelhead.

"Our runs of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin are in serious trouble," Johnson said. "It's really disappointing to see the Army Corps refuse to even comply with our basic laws for protecting clean water."

According to the lawsuit, pollution is occurring daily at the dams, threatening the health and survival of anadromous fish.

Columbia Riverkeeper initially sued the Corps in 2013 over discharges. The lawsuit was dropped a year later after the agency agreed to apply for Clean Water Act permits through the Environmental Protection Agency.

Those permits still have not been issued seven years later, Johnson said.

"We don't think anyone, especially the federal government, is above the law," he said. "We're asking for the Army Corps to follow the law and reduce pollution going into the river."

Matt Rabe, spokesman for the Corps' Northwest Division, said the agency applied for the EPA permits in 2015 and takes its Clean Water Act obligations seriously.

"Our team is working tirelessly to find solutions that balance all of the purposes of the system, including the needs of fish and wildlife, flood risk management, navigation, power generation, recreation, water supply and water quality," Rabe said.

Water temperature is one of the "pollutants" regulated by the EPA under the Clean Water Act. Both Oregon and Washington have established a maximum temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit for the Columbia River to protect salmon and steelhead runs.

Temperatures higher than 68 degrees can cause stress and disease among salmonids, leading to significant die-offs.

A recent EPA report for the Columbia and Snake rivers concluded that water temperatures regularly exceed 68 degrees at the dams between July and October.

Johnson said Clean Water Act permits could address this problem several ways. They might require the Corps to improve fish ladders at the dam, or draw down the reservoirs during the warm summer months to keep cooler water moving quickly through the system -- rather than sitting stagnant and absorbing sunlight.

However, Rabe said that though the pools behind the lower Columbia River dams are considered reservoirs, they are largely not storage reservoirs but rather run-of-river facilities.

"This limits our ability to impact water temperatures by drawing down water levels in the spring," he said.

Other users of the Columbia River system have questioned the temperature standard for salmon, arguing it is not realistically achievable and threatens the dams' continued operations for navigation, hydropower and water supplies.

Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said the temperature standard adopted in Oregon and Washington is setting the dams up for failure.

Northwest RiverPartners is a group based in Vancouver, Wash., that advocates for hydroelectricity, transportation and agriculture within the Columbia River system.

Looking at the EPA's report released last year, Miller said water coming into the system from farther upstream was already warmer than 68 degrees -- suggesting there is nothing dam operators can do to meet the target.

While the lawsuit does not specifically mention breaching dams, Miller said unachievable temperature standards could be used as a mechanism to further argue for dam removal.

"I think it gets at the motivation they're going for," he said.

Scientific research into the effect of dams on river temperatures is also mixed. In 2002, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., published a study indicating dams might actually offer a degree of protection, since it takes longer for larger bodies of water to heat than smaller waterways.

Combined with producing carbon-free electricity, Miller says productive hydroelectric dams should be part of the solution to combating climate change and keeping waters cool for fish.

George Plaven
Environmental Group Sues Army Corps Over Pollution from Columbia River Dams
Capital Press, December 8, 2021

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation