Fighting for Cold Water

Columbia Riverkeeper is fighting to protect salmon from hot water and climate change.

Water temperature over 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees F) is unsafe for salmon. As our climate warms, so do our rivers. On the Columbia and Snake rivers, hydroelectric dams make the heat pollution even worse. Large, shallow reservoirs absorb solar radiation and retain heat.

Sign our petition

Fight alongside us by telling EPA to protect Columbia and Snake river salmon from dangerously warm water.

 
How Riverkeeper is fighting heat pollution

Riverkeeper is challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) failure to complete a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) analysis for temperature pollution in the Columbia and lower Snake rivers. A TMDL is a study about the causes of temperature pollution and potential solutions. EPA’s preliminary results show that the large, shallow reservoirs on the Columbia and Snake rivers collect the sun’s energy, making the river too hot. The temperature TMDL is an important first step in reducing water temperature and protecting salmon.

In 2018, a federal district court ruled in Riverkeeper’s favor, finding that the Clean Water Act required EPA to issue the TMDL. Still unwilling to do the right thing, EPA appealed its defeat to the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit will hear oral arguments in Riverkeeper’s case on August 26, 2019. Stay tuned for updates. 

 

Background

When water temperatures reach the 70s, salmon die. In 2003, EPA studied the causes of hot water in the Columbia and Snake rivers and began developing a legally enforceable plan to fix the problem. But dam operators objected and the plan was shelved. Why? EPA found that dams are the main cause of temperature problems.


What is the law?

The Clean Water Act prohibits temperature in the Columbia River from exceeding 68 degrees. The Endangered Species Act is designed to protect critically imperiled species from extinction. But the government agencies in charge of the Columbia and Snake river massive hydroelectric dams aren’t obeying the law. Riverkeeper’s lawsuit alleges that EPA is legally obligated to write a plan to bring the rivers’ temperature back in line with the needs of salmon—and the requirements of the Clean Water Act.

This graph below shows that the Columbia River is warming. Water temperature over 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees F) is unsafe for salmon. As our climate warms, so do our rivers. On the Columbia and Snake rivers, hydroelectric dams make the heat pollution even worse. Removing certain dams, or challenging dam operations (reducing the size of reservoirs or increasing river flow rates), could decrease river temperature and prevent salmon extinction.

bonneville dam temperature graphic 1945 to 2017
Modeling solutions

How can we reduce water temperature to allow salmon survival? Remove dams. Scientists can employ sophisticated modeling software to identify solutions to water temperature problems in the Columbia River. For example, computer models can evaluate the temperature benefits of lowering reservoirs or removing dams. 

Riverkeeper conducted initial modeling (see below) to evaluate the impact of dams on water temperature in the summer of 2015, when 96% of returning Snake River sockeye died, primarily from hot water. The model showed that the temperature of a free-flowing Snake River would quickly reform to safe conditions for salmon, even during an extremely hot and dry year.

Riverkeeper Featured in the Seattle Times

“Washington state to regulate federal dams on Columbia, Snake to cool hot water, aid salmon” 

Why Does Climate Change Matter to the Columbia?