Big Win for Clean Water: Grand Coulee, Chief Joseph Dams to Reduce Pollution

After a decade of litigation by Columbia Riverkeeper, all ten federally-owned dams on the Columbia and Lower Snake river finally have Clean Water Act permits.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued Clean Water Act permits requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) and the Bureau of Reclamation (BoR) to reduce hot water, oil, and toxic-chemical pollution from Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams on the Columbia River in northeastern Washington. In 2019 and 2016, Columbia Riverkeeper sued the Army Corps and BoR, respectively, for illegally discharging pollution from these dams without Clean Water Act permits for decades. Those lawsuits caused the EPA to issue important Clean Water Act permits for both dams. 

As a result of years of legal advocacy, all ten federally-owned dams on the Columbia and Lower Snake rivers finally have Clean Water Act permits. 

“The Columbia’s iconic salmon rely on cool, clean water. It’s past time for federal agencies to reduce illegal pollution from dams—no one is above the law,” said Columbia Riverkeeper Executive Director Lauren Goldberg.  

Columbia Riverkeeper has litigated for nearly a decade to ensure that our nation’s basic law for the protection of clean water applies to federal dams.  

fish under the Columbia River

Big federal dams routinely release oil into the Columbia and Snake rivers, as highlighted by a recent spill of over 300 gallons of oil from the Army Corps’ Little Goose dam. According to government studies, these dams also make the water too hot for endangered salmon and steelhead. In 2021, Columbia Riverkeeper captured graphic footage of sockeye salmon dying from hot water in the Columbia River Gorge. 

The Clean Water Act permits, issued by the EPA, will require the Army Corps and BoR to reduce heat pollution and better control oil spills from their dams. To address heat pollution, the permits give Washington and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation authority to require the Army Corps and BoR to study and implement measures to decrease river temperatures that are killing salmon.   

While forcing EPA to issue strong Clean Water Act permits is a major milestone for clean water in the Columbia River basin, much work remains. “Columbia Riverkeeper will remain engaged to ensure that the Army Corps and BoR comply with the permits and implement real solutions that improve water quality and salmon survival,” said Legal Director Miles Johnson.   

Columbia Riverkeeper was represented in its cases against the Army Corps and BoR by our Staff Attorney Simone Anter and Executive Director Lauren Goldberg, as well as the firm Kampmeier and Knutsen.