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Clean Water Activists Dismayed but Unsurprised at Columbia River Salmon Die-Off

Marek Ślusarczyk, Wikimedia Commons
Written by Ethan M. Long

On July 16th, after it was discovered that almost half of the Sockeye salmon that travel back from the Pacific Ocean through the Columbia River every year had died during the migration,Washington and Oregon State officials set restrictions on angling, bringing an early end to fishing season on the river.

Up to 80 percent of a quarter million sockeye salmon currently travelling through the Columbia River in the Pacific NorthWest could die, according to Ritchie Graves of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), while speaking with the Associated Press. The Columbia River is currently five or six degrees warmer, which devestates not just sockeye salmon, but all cold-water species.

The Clean Water Act states:

“Each State shall estimate … the total maximum daily thermal load required to assure protection and propagation of a balanced, indigenous population of shellfish, fish and wildlife. Such estimates shall take into account the normal water temperatures, flow rates, seasonal variations, existing sources of heat input, and the dissipative capacity of the identified waters or parts thereof.”According to Oregon Public Broadcasting writer Cassandra Profita, the designated maximum temperature in response to the the Clean Water Act for the Columbia river is 68 degrees, which is the same temperature that Al-Jazeera America reports causes salmon to “become stressed.” The same Al-Jazeera article reports that at 74 degrees, the salmon stop travelling altogether.

In 1998, it was found that 5,863 miles of the Columbia Basin included streams too warm to support salmon, according to the Native Fish Society.

The Seattle Times reported earlier this month that the average temperature of the river in the past decade has been 63 degrees. Monitoring data shows that the temperature at the Bonneville Dam, located on the border of Washington and Oregon that the Columbia River follows, has been between 71 and 74 throughout most of the month, with temperatures barely cooling to around 70 as of July 27. The dam is just east of Portland, Oregon.

Another contributing factor to the rise of the water temperature are the dams themselves, according to Columbia RiverKeeper, a group that has a “vision to restore a Columbia Basin with clean, clear waters flowing cold from the headwaters to the Pacific Ocean.” The group supports challenging corporations and uniting watchdog groups to fight for clean conditions for a healthy ecological system, especially for the salmon.

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“I think it’s a hard problem to address without some serious changes,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, Executive Director & Riverkeeper at Columbia RiverKeeper in a July 31 interview with Rebel News. “We need to do that, we need serious changes now.”

A document provided by Columbia RiverKeeper from 2003 states that “The impact to water temperature of the dams ranges from very small at Rock Island where the maximum impact is about 0.07 °C to the impact of Grand Coulee which is as high as 6.0 °C in the late fall.” This is 10.8°F. On July 31, the water temperature at the Grand Coulee dam was around 67.64°F.

“Climate change on top of the dams is only going to make it worse,” said VandenHeuvel, “We’ve essentially changed the baseline where the river is hotter because of the dam, and then the air temperature and snowpack fluctuations are on top of that new baseline.”

The Clean Water Act mandates that states must identify the problems contributing to unsafe ecological conditions, and figure out how to raise the quality of the water. According to the Oregon Public Broadcasting article, the Columbia River was designated impaired over a decade ago.

“All of this has been known for a long time,” said VandenHeuvel. “We’ve just been building towards catastrophe, and just to blame it on some hot days ignores the real culprit of all of this which is, the fact that we have turned a free flowing wild cold river into a series of hot reservoirs.”

An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study was written and published in 2003 in response to data collected during a period between the late 1990s and early 2000s. From “EPA Region 10 Guidance For Pacific Northwest State and Tribal Temperature Water Quality Standards,” published in April, 2003:

Although temperature is highlighted here as a factor in the decline of native salmonid populations, it by no means is the only factor in their decline. Certainly, degradation of habitat unrelated to temperature (e.g., impassable barriers to spawning and rearing areas and physical destruction or inundation of spawning grounds), fishing harvest, and hatchery operations have all played a role in their decline. However, as described above, elevated temperatures are an important factor in the decline of salmonids and restoring suitable temperature regimes for salmonids is a critical element in protecting salmonid populations.

The EPA report then takes a look at what can be done to regulate Water Quality Standards (WQS):

The following are examples of specific on-the-ground actions that could be done to meet temperature WQS, protect salmonid populations and also aid in the recovery of threatened and endangered salmonid species:
  • Replant native riparian vegetation
  • Install fencing to keep livestock away from streams
  • Establish protective buffer zones to protect and restore riparian vegetation
  • Reconnect portions of the river channel with its floodplain 45
  • Re-contour streams to follow their natural meandering pattern
  • Increase flow in the river derived from more efficient use of water withdrawals.
  • Discharge cold water from stratified reservoirs behind dams
  • Lower reservoirs to reduce the amount of shallow water in “overbank” zones
  • Restore more natural flow regimes to allow alluvial river reaches to function.
  • Restore more natural flow regimes so that river temperatures exhibit a more natural diurnal and seasonal temperature regime
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According to VandenHeuvel, nothing ever came out of this report, or those published decades before it.

“There are studies from the 70s and 80s that say the dams are increasing the temperature of the river,” said VandenHeuvel. He continued to talk about the 2003 report, but, “that got shelved and nothing was ever done, so this is a long term, very predictable result.”

According to KLEWTV, officials have decided to use cold water from the reservoirs to see if that can cool the river. According to ThinkProgress, this method is very costly, with $500,000 being spent every time cold reservoir water is released. Another costly method would be to physically pick up the fish, contain them, and then bring them to colder water, which Oregon has done in the past.

Despite the actions already taken by Oregon officials, VandenHeuvel remains convinced that one big key to save the Columbia River and its indigenous species would be to remove the dams altogether. He is, however, doubtful it will happen.

“I don’t foresee in my lifetime a wild free flowing Columbia River,” VandenHeuvel said, who has a few other suggestions to help regulate WQS on the Columbia. “It’s a combination of more cold water, more natural flows, smaller reservoirs for some of the dams, and removal [of some dams]. All of those things can add up to big differences.”

Groups like Columbia RiverKeeper see those small changes, and the effects they would have, as keys to combating global warming. Rising water temperatures are already having an effect on natural habitats, which in turn have already been affected by industry and human colonisation.

The EPA has a page set-up on their website to teach students about the effects of a warmer climate. While it’s aimed at kids, the information is put in a way that should resonate with humans of all ages.

“If the Earth keeps getting warmer,” the EPA page says, “up to one fourth of all the plants and animals on Earth could become extinct within 100 years.”

VandenHeuvel does have hope that hydropower will start to be phased out in the future, as trends in the Pacific Northwest head towards different sustainable energies.

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“There’s tons of effort in the northwest on conservation and solar and wind projects,” he said. ”It’s a big wind production area where we live and there’s big solar, given it’s so cloudy where we live, that’s certainly the direction we’re moving.”

“So maybe in 20 years, the power production from the dams isn’t going to be as much of a dominant source of our power.”

And maybe, in 20 years, sockeye salmon will once again be able to migrate upstream without warm water having devastating effects on the population.

For more information about the decline of sockeye salmon in the Columbia River, read this.


Source: Associated Press


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About the author

Ethan M. Long

Ethan Long is a journalist based out of Boston, MA.

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Clean Water Activists Dismayed but Unsurprised at Columbia River Salmon Die-Off

by Ethan M. Long
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