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Water Too Warm, EPA Tells Corps

by Dan Hansen
Spokesman Review, August 5, 2000

Dams would be more expensive if they complied with Clean Water Act

Clean Water Act standards aren't just for the little guys.

They apply to federal agencies, too, the Environmental Protection Agency has warned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

That message, if taken to heart, could mean changes in the way the corps operates Northwest dams and how it analyzes the cost of breaching Snake River dams in Washington.

The corps last year released a draft environmental impact statement that studied the possibility of breaching the four dams as a salmon saving alternative. Economics will be one consideration in that decision, and the study showed that letting the river run free would be far more costly than improving the dams to make them more fish-friendly.

However, the corps did not take into account the cost of meeting Clean Water Act standards if the dams aren't breached, said Rick Parkin, EPA's Northwest manager of environmental review.

"If they did that, they might find that the cost (of keeping the dams) is much higher, perhaps even higher than breaching the dams," Parkin said.

It is not the first time the corps has heard that message.

A 1999 memo written by staff for the EPA and three other federal agencies said it would cost roughly $400 million to update the four dams to meet standards for dissolved gas and water temperature. To comply with the Clean Water Act at the 29 federal dams in the Snake and Columbia river basins could cost $2.4 billion, stated the memo, which was called "speculative" by one of its authors.

Judges have ruled that federal agencies must comply with the Clean Water Act. U.S. District Court Judge Helen Frye is the latest. Earlier this year, Frye agreed with environmentalists and fishermen that the corps must comply with water standards in the way it operates the Snake River dams.

Yet, in a June letter to the EPA, the corps' Northwest commander implies that meeting the standards is optional.

"As a matter of policy, not as a legal requirement, the corps complies with applicable water quality standards to the extent practicable," wrote Brigadier Gen. Carl Strock.

Elsewhere in the letter, Strock wrote: "To our knowledge, it is presently not practicable to modify existing (Snake and Columbia river dams) to meet temperature standards, although some projects can be operated to release cooler water from the reservoir and thus help lower the downstream water temperature."

That letter brought a strong rebuttal this week from Charles Findley, regional chief of the EPA.

"EPA disagrees that the corps has no legal obligation to comply with applicable water quality standards in operating the Snake River dams," Findley wrote in a letter to Strock.

Findley wrote that the corps' Snake River study overlooked both the cost of complying with water standards and the environmental impact of operating dams that are out of compliance. And while Strock said the corps is working on a water quality study with other agencies, Findley said that study is inadequate.

Under the 1972 Clean Water Act, states set standards for rivers.

The Columbia and Snake exceed Washington's limit for dissolved nitrogen, which can give fish a condition similar to the bends. The rivers become super-saturated with nitrogen when water is spilled over dams, sometimes as a flood-control measure and sometimes to help wash young salmon to the ocean. Expensive modifications to the dams would help solve the problem.

Hot water in the Snake River is a more difficult problem. Idaho and Washington have set the limit at 68 degrees. But after flowing 900 miles from Yellowstone National Park through Idaho -- where it irrigates farms, turns generators and serves as a conduit for treated sewage and industrial discharge -- the river often exceeds that limit by the time it reaches Washington.

Then, the water gets warmer in the reservoirs behind Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams. The temperature sometimes reaches into the 80s.

Salmon are cold-water fish. Juveniles or adults can be harmed, or even killed, when temperatures rise above 70 degrees.

Findley wrote in his letter that allowing the federal dams to ignore Clean Water Act standards sets a bad example as the EPA tells local governments and the operators of other dams and industries that they must comply.

In one recent case, the EPA told Potlatch Corp. that it must cool wastewater from its Lewiston, Idaho, mill to 68 degrees. The wastewater, which is discharged at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, sometimes reaches 92 degrees.

That change, which Potlatch is fighting, could cost the company $25 million.

The corps can lower the temperature of the Snake slightly by releasing cold water from Dworshak reservoir on the Clearwater River. The National Marine Fisheries Service recently asked the corps to study the possibility of releasing more water from that reservoir in September, when endangered chinook salmon and steelhead are making the migration from the ocean to inland spawning beds.

Dan Hansen
Water Too Warm, EPA Tells Corps
Spokesman Review, August 5, 2000

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