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NW Fishletter #392, April 1, 2019
 Public Urges Washington To 'Stand Strong' On EPA Water Quality Certifications
Dozens of comments from the public and environmental groups ask the Washington Department of Ecology to exercise its authority under the Clean Water Act to address rising water temperatures in the Snake and Columbia rivers caused by dams and climate change.
The comments--many focusing on the need to recover salmon to help orcas, and some asking to remove the lower Snake River dams--continued to be submitted even after the EPA withdrew its request for water quality certifications at nine federal dams in the basin on Feb. 1.
Ecology signaled it intends to use this unusual authority to issue or deny Section 401 Water Quality Certifications for the federal dams under the Clean Water Act, emphasizing that in bold in a Feb. 28 letter to the EPA. "This letter shall not be considered a waiver of Washington State's Section 401 certification authority," it reads in part. If EPA decides to move forward with the withdrawn permits, "this letter is a denial of the Section 401 certification you requested."
The letter also tells the EPA it would value a timeline for when a new request for the water quality certification will be submitted, and notes that Ecology plans to provide a new public comment period once a new request is received. "We interpret from your verbal communications with us that completing this work is a priority for EPA," the letter adds.
EPA's request for state-issued water quality certification for the nine dams--including the four lower Snake River dams, four lower Columbia River dams and Grand Coulee Dam--came about as the result of a lawsuit settlement between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Columbia Riverkeeper. The EPA is in charge of issuing National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits agreed to in the settlement, and the water quality certification is needed as part of those permits.
In September and October, EPA requested that certification from Ecology, and then withdrew its request on Feb. 1. The agency's reasons for withdrawing were clarified in a Feb. 15 letter from EPA to Ecology, which states, "The EPA determined that the permits require additional internal review and therefore withdrew the requests for water quality certification at this time. We fully intend to request CWA Section 401 certifications from Washington Department of Ecology after completing the internal review and updating the preliminary draft permits."
But Ecology was already seeking public comment on EPA's initial request, and despite the withdrawal, kept its comment period open through Feb. 19.
As noted in Ecology's letter to the EPA, "The majority of comments focus on the importance of ensuring all discharges from the dams meet state surface water quality standards. In particular, temperature was raised as a key concern to address, due to the importance of temperature in protecting and rebuilding salmon populations in the Columbia Basin and in achieving our state's recovery goals for salmon and Southern resident orca recovery."
Those comments are now available to the public. They include a few dozen from individuals, a handful from nonprofit groups, and one from Columbia Riverkeeper with 824 letters from individuals, many of them a variation of a form letter.
Some received later in the comment period expressed disappointment that EPA had withdrawn its request, and urged Ecology to "stand strong," or "stand firm" in its authority to require adherence to water temperature standards.
The letters sent by Riverkeeper say that climate change and dams combine to warm the Columbia and Snake rivers to unsafe levels, that salmon have difficulty migrating upstream when water temperatures exceed 68 degrees for several days at a time, and that those conditions are happening with increasing frequency due to climate change.
"Washington can require the Trump administration's EPA to protect the Columbia River's water quality and fisheries from the impacts of federal dams," the letters state, and conclude, "More than one third of the salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia Basin vanished during the last century. With your leadership, Washington can help struggling Columbia River salmon runs--and the orcas they sustain."
A comment from the Natural Resources Defense Council says that scientists estimate the Columbia and Snake river water temperatures increase in early fall by an average of 6.3 degrees as a result of impoundment. It notes that Washington's current water quality standard is for a one-day maximum temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
"The violation of that standard is well documented, and the federal government has openly recognized that the largest contributor to the problem is the dams," NRDC stated. "However, this water quality standard has never been enforced at the federal dams."
The group also notes that salmon stop their upstream migration when river temperatures hit 72 or 73 degrees, and that fish ladders in particular create stress because of temperature differences due to water coming in from different depths.
Representing 17 organizations, the Orca-Salmon Alliance called it a "temperature crisis on the Snake and Columbia rivers," and wrote that warmer water holds less oxygen, which can cause salmon to have less energy for spawning and lower resistance to disease or ability to escape from predators.
The Alliance also noted that the Fourth National Climate Assessment projects salmon could lose 22 percent of their habitat in Washington state due to warming rivers.
The group's letter did not call for removing Snake River dams as a way to address temperature problems, but more than a dozen individual comments from the public did.
A few individual comments defended the dams. One said that applying the state standard to the federal dams will not work when the water temperature is already too high when it reaches the dams. It says that removing dams would not cool the water that's already too warm above them, but would add millions of tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. The comment suggested more realistic measures such as planting shade trees and ceasing harvest.
Another individual attached documents with water temperatures in the lower Snake River from the 1950s--before the dams were built--showing that temperatures from every year collected exceeded the 68-degree threshold, and reports from the late 1800s also showing temperature exceedances of the state standards. The comment asked Ecology to give the historical data some consideration and credence. -K.C. Mehaffey
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