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Water Temperatures a Bone of Contention for TMDLs

by Pat McCoy
Capital Press - March 22, 2002

Water temperature is often a bone of contention when agriculture debates pollution-loading standards for rivers and streams, and proposed ways to lower them.

Desert streams across the arid regions of the West are naturally warmed by the sun, or bubble up from naturaly hot geothermal sources. Filling them with ice cubes would not cool those waters, said M.J. Byrne, public affairs specialist with the Lower Snake River District, Bureau of Land Management, Boise.

The BLM and all federal agencies are required to enforce the water quality standards of each state in which they administer lands. In Idaho, that is partly behind a four-inch stubble height requirement being written into many federal grazing permits. Ranchers are required to remove their cattle from streambanks once the forage is down to that level, she said.

The theory is that plant stubble provides shade, which will cool the water. In reality, it's never going to happen, said Dennis Stanford, a Jordan Valley rancher.

"I can take you to places along streams that cows haven't grazed for a year or longer, but the water temperature is still well above the standard," Stanford said. "Nobody's meeting these standards, so we're told we have to take our cows home by mid-July. It's just another tool to get us off the range."

Temperature standars are hurting farmers as well as ranchers, he said. The Owyhee River is too warm from the Owyhee Dam to where the river meets the Snake River, and growers are being blamed.

"That water is warmed by air temperature and sunlight. There's just too much daylight in summer. Even if they had a canopy shading the entire river all day, there wouldn't be enough evaporation at night to cool the temperature down," he said.

Idaho's standard for cold water biota, or fish, is a temperature of 22 degrees Celsius or less, with a maximum daily average of not over 19 C. Thats about 66 to 71.6 degrees Fahrenheit, said Bryan Horsburgh, senior water quality analyst with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

Total maximum daily loads for water bodies identified are written case by case for each stream, said David Mabe, administrator of water quality programs, DEQ.

The original standards were believed to reflect fish needs, and don't necessarily reflect what's attainable on the ground. They're 10 to 20 years old, Mabe said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started working on a new temperature guidance about two years ago. As a guidance rather than a rule, it did not have to be published in the Federal Register. It was announced on the EPA's website, and the agency asked for public comments in the Northwest, said John Palmer, senior policy adviser for the Endangered Species and Clean Water acts at the regional EPA office in Seattle.

A draft guidance was reviewed by a polic group that includes the DEQs from Idaho, Oregon and Washington, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the member tribes of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. It went out for public comment at the end of October 2001. The public comment period closed on Feb 22, said Palmer.

The agency will make some revisions in the draft guidance as a result of public comments now under review. EPA hopes to issue a final guidance some time this summer, he said.

Once the temperature guidance is final, EPA will recommend that the Northwst states follow it. The states won't be required to follow the new temperature guidance. But, if they do, they'll automatically meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. If they choos not to follow the guidance, they'll be subject to EPA scrutiny to make sure that their actions meet the requirements of the CWA and the ESA.

Idaho officials hope that the EPA's completed new temperature guidline will better reflect real conditions, and will recognize that some streams are naturally warmer or cooler than others, Mabe said.

"In the meantime, we aren't even writing temperature standards into some of the TMDLs," he said.

DEQ knows fish and smolts are found in waters warmer than the standards, said Steve West, regional DEQ administrator.

"There's no doubt there are situations in which natural conditions exceed the temperature standards. We're scrambling to catch our criteria and standards up with the practical realities of water quality in Idaho," West said.

The proposed Snake River Hells Canyon TMDL has a temperature target of 64 F. That's hard to justify, and can't be met; the Idaho-Oregon border region is just too hot, said Ron Jones, district manager of the Malheur County Soil and Water Conservation District.

"Initially we worked under the assumption that algae grwoth in Brownlee Reservoir (one of three Hells Canyon dams) was killing fish." The Idaho and Oregon Departments of Environmental Quality "had a gard time substantiating their claims on fish kills related to algae," he said. "Now they've decided the beneficial uses impaired are recreation and aesthetics.

"There's not many standards for recreation and aesthetics," said Jones. "Those are visual things, and partly depend on who you are and how you feel today. How do you argue with DEQ over that?"

by Pat McCoy Capital Press Staff Writer
Water Temperatures a Bone of Contention for TMDLs
Capital Press - March 22, 2002

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