The EPA has agreed to issue by May 18 a plan that identifies sources of and outlines a plan to address high-temperature problems in the Columbia and Snake rivers, and will not ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review lower court decisions requiring the agency to issue the plans, known as total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez agreed April 14 to extend the deadline for EPA to issue a TMDL for temperature until May 18, after EPA and conservation groups asked for the extension in a joint motion.
The judge had initially ordered the TMDL on Oct. 17, 2018, within 60 days, in Columbia Riverkeeper et al., v. Andrew Wheeler, et al. EPA appealed the ruling, but on Dec. 20, 2019, a panel of 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges agreed with the ruling. The appeals court then denied EPA's request for a rehearing on March 30.
The joint motion said EPA's effort to complete the TMDL has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. "Nearly all personnel in the EPA Region 10 Office in Seattle and the Office of Water in EPA's Headquarters Office in Washington, D.C., are now remotely teleworking. And a number of individuals with roles in finalizing the TMDL have been directly involved in pandemic response operations," the joint motion stated.
The TMDL will identify sources of increased water temperatures, and outline a basic plan to address them. The U.S. District Court order to issue a TMDL within 60 days was stayed pending the 9th Circuit decision.
Hydroelectric dams and climate change were identified in EPA's previous draft of the TMDL as the main causes of higher water temperature in both the Columbia and lower Snake rivers. Following issuance of a TMDL, conditions could be placed on hydroelectric permits to help reduce river temperatures.
The lawsuit was brought by Columbia Riverkeeper, Snake River Waterkeeper, Idaho Rivers United, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and the Institute for Fisheries Resources.
"We think EPA's duty to protect salmon and address hot water is very clear, and we look forward to some real action from EPA and state agencies," Columbia Riverkeeper Executive Director Brett VandenHeuvel said after the 9th Circuit denied EPA a rehearing.