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White House Enters Dispute Over Dams Salmon

by Les Blumenthal Herald Washington, D.C., bureau
Tri-City Herald, May 25, 2003

WASHINGTON -- A dispute over regulating water temperatures on the Columbia and Snake rivers has reached into the White House and top levels at the Interior Department amid state and tribal concerns the effort to help endangered salmon could be undercut to protect federal dams.

Nine months after it was first circulated among federal agencies, a controversial 53-page preliminary draft proposal for establishing temperature controls prepared by the Seattle office of the Environmental Protection Agency remains in limbo.

Officials from Washington state and Oregon fear the White House Council on Environmental Quality may limit EPA's continued involvement in developing a temperature plan for the rivers, while tribal officials say the agencies that operate the dams want an exemption from the Clean Water Act.

Cool water is considered essential for migrating salmon. Any plan to cool the Columbia and Snake rivers would have a major impact on the operation of the dams, which generate massive amounts of cheap electricity as well as provide water for irrigation, navigation and recreation, and safeguards against floods.

The Council on Environmental Quality, which coordinates environmental policy for the administration, has held a series of meetings on the issue. The meetings were requested by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Adminstration.

And they say that if strict river temperature limits were imposed and then not met, environmentalists would have an opening to ask a federal court to remove some of the dams.

White House officials describe the meetings as routine given the number of agencies involved and the possible implications for federal dams on the Columbia and Snake as well as elsewhere.

Critics say the White House has interfered and slowed the effort to come up with a plan. At the same time, the White House Office of Management and Budget is taking a broader look at federal regulations involving water temperatures and other requirements of the Clean Water Act.

"This whole thing has taken a darker turn," said Rick George of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Northeastern Oregon. "It's all being done behind our backs. This is a political ploy to get around sound science."

Juvenile salmon headed out to sea and adult salmon returning to spawn need cool water.

"Temperatures are clearly one of the main constraints on salmon populations," said Chuck Coutant, a fisheries biologist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee who for years has studied the effects of temperatures on the Columbia and Snake runs.

Coutant said water temperatures above the mid-60s start to stress salmon of all ages. He said at 70 degrees the fish can get "really stressed," and they start dying when water temperatures hit the mid-70s.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, the states have the responsibility for regulating water temperatures, or total daily maximum loads, with EPA responsible for approving state plans.

Faced with the seemingly overwhelming task on the Columbia and Snake rivers, Washington and Oregon asked the EPA for help, believing the agency had the technical expertise to design a temperature plan.

After months of work using a complicated mathematical model, EPA concluded last September the 15 dams on the Columbia and Snake were the primary cause of elevated water temperatures. The EPA also concluded the problem could be solved by releasing cooler water from upstream reservoirs, though cooling the rivers would be exceedingly difficult to accomplish.

"This was the first step," said Randy Smith, director of the water office at EPA in Seattle.

The Corps, Bureau of Reclamation and BPA pounced on the preliminary draft from EPA, which has still not been released for public comment.

In a letter to EPA's regional administrator in Seattle, Roy Fox, manager of Bonneville's federal hyrdo projects, wrote, "In essence, EPA seeks to establish a regime under which dam operators must achieve standards that are incompatible with their fundamental operation requirements."

The agencies questioned EPA's modeling, suggested the increased water temperatures resulting from the dams should not be considered because the dams can't be removed, and warned of protracted litigation.

Smith said the EPA was surprised by the reaction.

As the infighting intensified, among those who became involved was Ann Klee, counsel to Interior Secretary Gale Norton. The Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Grand Coulee, is part of the Interior Department.

The dispute eventually was elevated to the level of the Council on Environmental Quality.

Meanwhile, the states remain worried the White House could end EPA's role in developing the temperature plan.

"It is critically important that EPA continue in its effort relating to temperature," Washington and Oregon's top environmental officials said in a Feb. 12 letter to James Connaughton, the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality. "If EPA were to be removed from this effort, we would find it difficult to begin the process anew,"

EPA officials in Washington, D.C., denied there was ever any effort to remove the regional office from the temperature program.

"We will continue to be actively involved," said Ben Grumbles, deputy assistant administrator for water at EPA headquarters.

A spokeswoman for the Council on Environmental Quality, Dana Perino, said the council has made no effort to slow down the development of temperature standards for the Columbia and Snake rivers.

"We've been working in our traditional role facilitating discussion and coordinating policy," Perino said. "We are proceeding without delay."

The council specifically has asked government lawyers to explore two questions involving water temperatures, both of which could set important precedents not only in the Northwest but at other federal dams.

Officials for EPA, the Corps, the Bureau of Reclamation and BPA all say progress is being made on establishing temperature standards for the Columbia and Snake even as the policy and legal questions are being debated in Washington, D.C.

"It's not an adversarial relationship," said Ken Pedde, deputy regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation in Boise. "We are working through this."

Even so, George of the Umatilla Tribe remains skeptical about White House involvement and the maneuverings of the federal agencies.

"EPA has done an admirable job," he said. "But the bottom line is that high water temperatures can be lethal to salmon. We are disappointed a choice has been made at higher levels to get around the Clean Water Act."

Les Blumenthal, is a Washington, D.C., reporter for Scripps-McClatchy Western Service
White House Enters Dispute Over Dams Salmon
Tri-City Herald, May 25, 2003

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