In an historic action last week, the state Department of Ecology required federal operators of eight dams on in the Columbia-Snake rivers to write a plan to keep the waters cold enough for adult salmon survival.
Conservation groups said the “game-changing decision” is necessary to protect endangered salmon species, which struggle to survive when river temperatures exceed 68 degrees. But hydropower proponents worry that meeting the temperature standards could be unattainable without costly rate hikes for utility customers in hydropower-reliant areas like Cowlitz County.
“What this decision risks doing is saying, ‘We are going to regulate the temperature of the river because there are dams there.’ But the reality is even without the dams, those temperatures could be the exact same,” said Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest River Partners, a group of utility districts, ports and businesses.
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Ecology on Thursday issued Clean Water Act 401 Certifications for four dams on the Lower Columbia River (Bonneville, John Day, McNary, The Dalles) and four dams on the Lower Snake River (Little Goose, Ice Harbor, Lower Granite, Lower Monumental). The certification enables Ecology to work with federal dam operators to review studies and plans for meeting the state’s water quality standards, which include a rule to keep river temperatures below 68 degrees.
That rule helps keep the water cool enough for adult salmon to survive their migration through the river to spawning habitat.
“Society is doing a lot of work restoring tributaries for spawning ... which is all really important. But if the river is too hot for adult salmon to migrate up, we have a huge problem,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director for Columbia Riverkeeper, a Hood River-based conservation group.
He added that parts of the Columbia River routinely reach 72 or 73 degrees. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the federal dams, doesn’t yet have a formal plan to address that problem.
“There’s been a lot of studies and papers by the federal government, but they just have not done anything to address the problem,” VandenHeuvel said. “Now, for the first time, the state of Washington is going to have the ability to require the federal government to take some action on this plan and that, I think, is an important shift.”
Most dams are certified when they receive their operating license. But the dams were built before the rules were in place, so they’ve been operating without the certifications.
Riverkeeper opened an opportunity for certification with a 2013 lawsuit that required the Corps to seek oil discharge permits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Before the EPA could issue the permit, it had to make sure it met state standards.
“This is the first federal action that has prompted the state’s certification requirements, so it’s been our first opportunity to look at the dams and put these certifications in place,” said Vince McGowan, Ecology’s water quality program manager.
Miller, the Northwest River Partners director, worried that the decision could create unattainable standards for dam operators.
All eight dams are “run-of-the-river” dams, which means water generally passes through them at the same rate it would on a free-flowing river. Though Riverkeeper contends that the dams increase water temperatures, Miller said there’s “science that pretty strongly disputes that.”
Moreover, the dam operators have “very little ability to do anything about water temperature,” which, in the case of run-of-the-river dams, is mostly influenced by the air temperature around the river, Miller said.
To lower water temperatures, the Corps could work on habitat projects to add trees to shade the river, or it could release cooler water from upstream dams, Miller said. But the cost of those projects would be passed along to ratepayers with little potential benefit for salmon, he said.
Cowlitz PUD purchases more than 90% of its wholesale power from Bonneville Power Administration, which relies on the Federal Columbia River Power System that includes these dams, said spokeswoman Alice Dietz.
“Any decision which directly influences the operations of the (river power system) can create a financial impact to the District. At this time it is too early to tell what, if any, potential financial impacts there may be,” she said.
It could take up to two years before federal agencies release a detailed plan to meet the state’s water temperature requirements, McGowan said. In the meantime, Ecology will work with the Corps and the EPA to discuss the potential options.
“This is a really important first step for us to have that kind of relationship with the (federal) dams, with our state role,” McGowan said. “The other stakeholders and dam operators themselves will have opportunities to work out exactly what this means in the long run.”