Our Rivers Too Dam Hot for Salmon

It’s so hot in the Columbia River Gorge today, my chickens and kids are walking around with their mouths open to cool off. Triple-digit temperatures are hitting the Pacific Northwest, and it’s not just my egg-count and 5-year-old that are suffering. Salmon need cool river temperatures to complete their migrations home, back to the rivers and mountain streams of their birth. But it’s becoming dangerously hot in the river for the fish.

Columbia River, Credit: Giulia Good Stefani/NRDC

That’s why NRDC has joined forces with the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association and Columbia Riverkeeper to support Washington State. We have filed a motion to intervene in a court case to uphold the State’s Clean Water Act Section 401 Certifications that require the federal government to manage its hydropower dams on the Columbia River and lower Snake River to reduce heat pollution and protect salmon.

If you live in the Pacific Northwest you probably already know, salmon are everything, as Jay Julius a fisherman and former chairman of the Lummi Nation shared on a recent zoom presentation. I have heard the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee Chairman Shannon Wheeler refer to salmon as old money. The original wealth of this region, salmon bring nutrients from the ocean back inland—feeding an incredible abundance and diversity of people, animals, and plants alike.

Our collective salmon wealth, however, is in serious jeopardy.

Columbia River, Credit: Scott Cushman

The mighty Columbia River and its largest tributary, the Snake River, have been cut up into a series of lake-like stretches by the construction of hydropower dams. The federal dams create large, unshaded, slow-moving, and relatively shallow reservoirs. In the summer, the water heats up a bit like a dog bowl in the sun.

Lower Granite Dam, Credit: U.S. Army Corps

When river temperatures exceed 68 F for several days at a time—as happens more often now due to the dams and climate change—salmon have difficulty migrating upstream and begin succumbing to stress and disease. If the water stays too hot for too long, the fish die—sometimes in huge numbers. In 2015, about 250,000 sockeye salmon perished because of hot water. At Ice Harbor dam on the Snake River, the Seattle Times reported earlier this year that on average temperature exceeds what’s safe for salmon in August 100 percent of the time.

“Our industry is still reeling from the legacy of the 2015 drought, when hot water in the Columbia basin killed hundreds of thousands of adult salmon” said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association in a joint statement released today.

This is the first time that Washington State has flexed its Clean Water Act authority and set temperature pollution limits on the Columbia River and lower Snake River dams. The U.S. Army Corps, however, recently appealed Washington State’s temperature limits on the dams. In its appeal, the U.S. Army Corps argues that the State has overreached its authority in setting limits on river temperature to protect salmon.

Credit: Columbia Riverkeeper

Washington’s requirement that the U.S. Army Corps protect salmon and cool the rivers through use of the Clean Water Act 401 Certification process has notably achieved the support of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians of the United States (ATNI). Earlier this month, ATNI passed a resolution in support of the State’s 401 Certifications, and the reasons for that resolution are manifold and deserving of a full read and considered review. They include the fact that “the southern resident orcas and wild Columbia River basin salmon are integral parts of Pacific Northwest tribal culture and economy,” the fact that “many northwest tribes have treaty and/or ceremonial rights guaranteeing their ability to take and consume Columbia River basin salmon in perpetuity,” and the painful reality that “the efforts of numerous agencies and tribes have thus far achieved limited success in restoring native Columbia River basin salmon runs, and many such runs—especially in the Snake River basin—have gone extinct or are approaching extinction . . . .”

The federal government’s recent Total Maximum Daily Load report found that the dams, especially the lower Snake River dams, are the main human cause of the water temperature problems in the rivers. Now the U.S. Army Corps is arguing that it doesn’t have to comply with (the government’s own!) Total Maximum Daily Load limits on heat pollution.

Free the Snake Flotilla, Credit: Giulia Good Stefani/NRDC

Sometimes fighting on behalf of salmon can feel like its own upriver journey. This is a complicated issue, one that touches on numerous lives, livelihoods, and industries in the region. It is mired by politics on all sides. But it is also a natural and human system crisis that is in desperate need of courageous leadership and bold solutions.

More salmon populations going extinct is unacceptable and would take an incalculable toll—on other wildlife and many people too. In 1909, the U.S. Supreme Court understood that fishing was “not much less necessary to the existence of the [Pacific Northwest Native Americans] than the atmosphere they breathed.” United States v. Winans, 198 U.S. 371, 381 (1905). And yet 115 years later, the salmon continue to decline and fisheries across the region are closed.

Now is the moment and the chance to offer up a model for the entire country of how people that share a common respect for the bounty and beauty of a place can come together and by taking care of the salmon, we take care of each other too.

About the Authors

Giulia C.S. Good Stefani

Senior Attorney, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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