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NW Fishletter #391, March 4, 2019

[1] Washington State Jumps Into Water Temperature Certification At Federal Dams

Settlements between an environmental group and two federal agencies put Washington state in an unusual position of authority over nine federal dams on the Columbia and Snake river and their impacts on water quality, including temperature.

But that authority disappeared--at least temporarily--when the Environmental Protection Agency withdrew its application for 401 Water Quality Certification at the dams on Feb. 1.

"EPA has determined that the preliminary draft permits for which we had requested water quality certification need additional review," a statement from EPA said. "Therefore, we have withdrawn our requests for water quality certification at this time. We fully intend to reinitiate our requests for water quality certification after we have completed our internal review and updated the preliminary draft permits, as appropriate."

Maia Bellon, director of the Washington State Department of Ecology, expressed concern about the federal agency's decision to withdraw its application, also in a prepared statement. "Absent a timeline from EPA to deliver an updated permit request, I remain concerned about when the federal government will protect the Columbia and Snake rivers," she wrote. "Our salmon runs and endangered orcas cannot continue to suffer. Time is not on our side. Washington state will continue to make progress in protecting and restoring these rivers and if necessary, we will look for alternative options to ensure our water quality standards are met."

And in a Feb. 29 letter to the EPA, Ecology made clear that the EPA cannot move forward with pollution discharge permits at the dams without the state's approval, and that the federal agency will have to submit a new request for 401 certification which will start a new review and public comment period for Ecology. "This letter shall not be considered a waiver of Washington State's Section 401 certification authority," it said. "In the event that EPA decides to move forward with any of the permits referenced in your October 19, 2018 letter without submitting a new request for certification to Ecology, this letter is a denial of the Section 401 certifications you requested."

In late January, the state's Department of Ecology signaled it planned to use the unexpected authority to ensure federal agencies are held to the same standards as private companies and public utility districts which must show plans to adhere to state water quality standards when licensing or relicensing a hydroelectric project with Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Federal projects don't have the same requirement under the Clean Water Act, but an EPA action to resolve the lawsuits had triggered the 401 Water Quality Certification for these federal dams.

On Jan. 30, Ecology issued a notice seeking public input on the EPA's request for 401 certification from the state for National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for Grand Coulee Dam, the four lower Snake and the four lower Columbia river dams. The permits are part of settlement agreements between Columbia Riverkeeper and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation. Ecology is accepting public comment until Feb. 19.

"This is an opportunity for us to work toward parity with all the other dams," Ecology spokeswoman Colleen Keltz told Clearing Up before the applications were withdrawn. "We've done this with 64 other dams in the state," she added.

Under the 401 certification process, Keltz said that Ecology was planning to use public comments on what should be considered in issuing the certifications, and the EPA would then use Ecology's conditions to issue its NPDES permits. "We have to certify that we think this permit, if followed, will meet Washington's water quality standards."

She said Ecology will work with the federal agencies, and they will determine how to meet the state standards, including preventing water temperatures from exceeding 68 F (20 C).

While the certification would cover all forms of pollution, getting dams into compliance with water temperature standards is expected to be one of the biggest hurdles.

Lauren Goldberg, legal and program director for Columbia Riverkeeper, said there's no scientific reason why private dams should be treated differently than those owned and operated by federal agencies, but states do not usually have the authority to issue 401 certifications for federal operations.

"This is a big deal that Washington state is planning to issue 401 certifications and tackle the longstanding issue of hot water in the Columbia and Snake rivers," she said before the EPA withdrew its applications. "It's a huge opportunity for Washington state to help struggling orcas and salmon populations throughout the Pacific Northwest."

Meanwhile, Washington is getting comments on what should be included as requirements under its certification. In a Jan. 23 letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, 17 nonprofit groups that together formed the Orca Salmon Alliance urged the state to use its full authority in issuing a 401 certification.

"Many large- and small-scale modifications to the structure and operation of the dams and reservoirs could improve water quality and salmon survival," the letter states. "Ecology should use the 401 certification process to model and identify how changes to fish ladders, selectively drawing down certain reservoirs, increasing summer flows, possible dam breaching, and other measures can reduce temperature and enhance fish survival."

The letter notes that temperature has long been an issue in the Columbia River basin, and has prompted several lawsuits.

But the impact that dams have on water temperature is complicated. In December, a predraft analysis by EPA that assesses water temperatures in the Snake and Columbia rivers from 2011 through 2016 concludes that "climate change and dams are the dominant sources impacting river temperatures, with impacts that are an order-of-magnitude higher than point sources, agricultural withdrawals (Banks Lake project), and tributaries."

The analysis found that the Columbia Basin's waterways are strongly influenced by air temperatures, which have been increasing for decades with global warming. Since 1960, the Columbia Basin's water temperatures have increased by a total of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 F). That amounts to between 0.2 and 0.4 C per decade (0.36 to 0.72 F), the analysis said.

The analysis includes estimated monthly impacts on water temperature of each dam impoundment from 2011-2016, for July through October. By impounding water, the dams often serve to cool the river temperatures in the spring and early summer, especially due to the influences of Grand Coulee Dam in the Columbia River, and Dworshak Dam in the Snake River, the analysis found. The dams add to the warming effects in the summer and fall, with the greatest impacts in August and September. However, the impacts from dams "vary substantially by month and by river location," the analysis noted.

Overall, it found that from July through September--depending on the year--the impact of dams in the Columbia ranged from decreasing water temperatures by 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.44 F) to increasing them by 2.2 C (3.96 F), while the impact of dams in the Snake River increased water temperatures from between 0.3 to 2.1 C (0.54 to 3.78 F).

Meanwhile, climate change has increased the Columbia River by between 0.3 and 0.4 degrees Celsius (0.54 to 0.72 F) each decade, while it has warmed Snake River dams by between 0.1 to 0.4 C (0.18 to 0.72 F) per decade.

The certification--which was expected to consider all pollutants, including temperature--is different from the total maximum daily load limits on pollutants--or TMDLs--that is the subject of another lawsuit currently stalled by appeals in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Preparations for NPDES permits for the dams stem from lawsuits brought by Columbia Riverkeeper, and its settlement agreements--first with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2014, and three years later with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation--over oils that seep into the river from operating the dams.

Matt Rabe, spokesman for the Corps which operates eight of the nine dams, said in an email that his agency has not seen drafts of either the NPDES permit, or the 401 certification that Washington state is planning to develop. "Until we see those, we do not know what the implications will be to the Corps," he wrote.

He noted that the agency already does a variety of things each summer to reduce temperatures in the lower Snake River. "Key among those are cold water releases from Dworshak Dam and water cooling structures at the adult fish ladders at both Lower Granite and Little Goose dams," his email states.

Installing the fish ladder cooling structures was the result of the catastrophic 2015 migration season for Columbia Basin sockeye. Water temperatures in June and July were 7 F higher than usual, and an estimated 250,000 adults died trying to make their way back up the Snake and Columbia rivers to spawn.

In early July, river temperatures peaked in the upper Columbia at 82 F in the Okanogan River near Malott, and at 77 F in the Salmon River's White Bird Gage in the Snake River basin, a 2016 NOAA Fisheries report on the 2015 sockeye migration season found.

The report noted that the difference in temperature on fish ladders--warmer at the top and cooler at the bottom--can prevent salmon from traveling upstream in warm water conditions. The ladder modifications were among 10 recommendations for salmon managers, who are likely to face similar conditions in the future due to climate change, the report notes.

That report outlined the unusual conditions preceding the die-off, including runoff levels in both the Snake and Columbia rivers ranking near the lowest recorded in winter, spring and summer, and air temperatures that were 5 to 7.6 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal from January through March, and again in June. Federal operators took many actions--especially cool water releases from upstream storage facilities--to reduce the water temperatures and help the migrating fish, it said.

Salmon managers generally set a target temperature below the 68-degree Fahrenheit standard at Lower Granite Dam to ensure the water is cool enough for migrating fish, but in 2015, two of the solar radiation monitoring sensors near Lewiston, Idaho, malfunctioned just before the July 4 weekend, so incorrect data led managers astray.

"Based on flawed modeling results, the Technical Management Team agreed to reduce discharge from Dworshak Dam while temperatures in the lower Snake River were increasing rapidly," the report said.

Water releases were adjusted once the error was discovered. For migrating sockeye in 2015, the releases of water from the system's large impoundments--including Brownlee Dam in Canada, Grand Coulee Dam in the Columbia, and Dworshak Dam in the Snake River basin--helped to cool the rivers and likely benefited adult migrants by preventing temperatures from increasing as much, although not enough to prevent the die-off, the report found. -K.C. Mehaffey

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NW Fishletter is produced by NewsData LLC.
Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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