Columbia Riverkeeper is a non-profit organization that for many years has been involved in key legislation regarding efforts to protect and restore the water quality of the Columbia River and its tributaries. It focuses on environmental laws to stop illegal pollution, protect salmon habitat, and challenge fossil fuel terminals. The organization has offices in Hood River and Portland, Oregon, and works throughout the Columbia River Basin. See more about its work here.
Below is a Columbia Basin Bulletin Question/Answer with Lauren Goldberg, who begins as executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper on August 1. Goldberg joined the organization in 2006 as a law clerk, became a staff attorney in 2008, and served as the legal and program director since 2016. She graduated cum laude from Lewis and Clark Law School with a certificate in Environmental Law. As Executive Director, Goldberg will oversee all aspects of the organization’s legal and policy work, operations, and development. She replaces Brett VandenHeuvel, who led the organization since 2009, and remains a board member.
CBB: The Environmental Protection Agency last year said the combination of dams and climate change are major factors in creating warm water temperatures impacting salmon and steelhead migrating through the Columbia and Snake rivers. And now we are well into summer. Is it fair to say that warming temperatures, water and air, are the most significant threat to the basin’s endangered and threatened salmonids?
The hydrosystem is the most significant threat to the basin’s endangered salmon and steelhead, for reasons including increased water temperatures caused by the dams and compounded by climate change. The hydrosystem has profoundly transformed the river. Columbia basin salmon evolved to migrate to the ocean in a fast, turbid, cold river—and migrate back to their spawning grounds in water that only occasionally reached 68 or 70 F. The series of dams on the Columbia (including in Canada) and the Snake flatten the hydrograph, reduce average water velocity, reduce sediment transportation and turbidity, and increase water temperatures in the summer and fall. Dams create large, stagnant reservoirs that soak up the sun’s energy, making the water too hot for salmon. All of these changes are bad for migrating salmon and increase salmon mortality due to poor water quality and predation—even before we start talking about problems with fish passing the dam structures. As the former director of EPA’s Office of Water and Watersheds explained: the predation problem for Columbia River salmon “is a symptom of managing the river solely to maximize power generation.” Add to these chronic problems the increasing pressure of climate change, and it is not surprising that government scientists predict salmon and steelhead will go extinct in the Snake River unless we significantly change the status quo.
CBB: Tackling temperature and pollution issues at the dams involves a lot of process, permitting and litigation that can get confusing to the public. So maybe we can sort some of this out. First, how does the Clean Water Act apply to the mainstem dams and the protection of salmon and steelhead?
Under the Clean Water Act, states create criteria that must be met to preserve the uses (like healthy fisheries) of all rivers and lakes. For the Columbia and Lower Snake rivers, Oregon and Washington set the standard of 68 F as the temperature necessary to protect salmon. Unfortunately, the Columbia and Lower Snake do not meet this standard, and the problem is getting worse.
CBB: The EPA has also released the Total Maximum Daily Load – TMDL — for temperature at the dams, setting temperature limits that are based on the state water quality standards. How does the TMDL fit into this picture, with the NPDES permits and the Clean Water Act?
Under the Clean Water Act, a TMDL is a plan to fix a waterway that is too polluted. Because of successful litigation by Columbia Riverkeeper and our partners, EPA wrote a temperature TMDL for the Columbia and Lower Snake. Now, EPA and states must implement the TMDL in the specific water pollution discharge permits (aka NPDES permits) and Clean Water Act section 401 water quality certifications for the dams. Bottomline: We have a new tool to tackle a long running problem—hot water—on the Columbia. And it took a lawsuit to make this possible.
CBB: The EPA has issued “National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits” for the Lower Snake dams. EPA is expected to issue final NPDES permits for federal dams on the Lower Columbia this fall. It’s my understanding an NPDES permit includes conditions, in some cases prohibitions, on the discharge of pollutants from each of the dams, such as temperature, total dissolved gas, PCBs, and oil and grease. Are these permits an effective way to address temperature and pollution in the river? Can the issuance of these permits be considered progress? What happens next?
NPDES permits are among the most successful pollution reduction tools created under U.S. law; they have a multi-decade track record of significantly improving water quality in rivers and lakes all across America. So the issuance of legally-binding NPDES permits requiring the Army Corps to meet the TMDL’s temperature pollution reduction targets absolutely constitutes progress. But it’s not the end of the road. Reducing the reservoirs’ temperature pollution isn’t something that can be accomplished with the flip of a switch; it will take several years of careful study and planning to understand how the hydrosystem can be operated differently to reduce the reservoirs’ heat pollution. This may entail drawing down certain reservoirs in the summer and fall or moving water more quickly through the reservoirs. The Army Corps has long resisted studying or implementing such measures, but the NPDES permits mandate this long-overdue work.
CBB: Dams create reservoirs, warming water for salmon and steelhead. With all this process and permitting, do you see changes in the future that might actually reduce temperatures in the Columbia and Snake rivers?
Five words: Lower Snake River dam removal. Removing the dams would prevent water temperatures in the Lower Snake River from reaching levels that caused the massive fish kills seen in 2015 and 2021.
In our view, we must unite around solutions to remove the four Lower Snake River dams and reinvest in regional transportation, irrigation, and energy infrastructure. Working together, we can honor Tribal rights and interests and secure a future that includes salmon, agriculture, and clean energy.
The situation is dire. But there’s still time to restore the Snake’s and Columbia’s once-mighty salmon runs. Other dam removals in the Columbia Basin and the Pacific Northwest have resulted in dramatic and immediate improvements in salmon survival. There is every reason to believe the same would be true in the Snake River.
CBB: Will it be the states that enforce temperature limits at the dams? What happens if no progress? Litigation? If the Army Corps does not comply with the permits’ requirements to address the dams’ temperature pollution, Columbia Riverkeeper, the states, or EPA can bring an enforcement action against the Army Corps under the Clean Water Act.
CBB: EPA tucked its 2021 “Cold Water Refuge Plan” into the TMDL and added temperature, flow and cold water refuge targets for 13 tributary sites. The plan identifies cold water refuges along salmon and steelhead migration routes in the lower mainstem Columbia River. What’s your view of the plan and its potential effectiveness?
Cold water refuges are an important part of many freshwater ecosystems, including in the Columbia River basin. EPA’s Cold Water Refuges report is an informative document that explains where cold water refuges currently exist in the Lower and Mid-Columbia, as well as how salmon and steelhead use them. The Cold Water Refuges report does not—despite its inclusion in the TMDL—explain who is responsible for protecting and enhancing the existing cold water refuges in the Columbia or prescribe where and how to create additional refuges. Essentially, the Cold Water Refuges report contains a lot of good information, but is not a “plan” as it does not require any entity to take any specific action, and therefore is unlikely to improve water temperature conditions or fish survival without further action.
CBB: Columbia Riverkeeper over the years has been the leading group in addressing through litigation oil pollution at Columbia and Snake River dams. Riverkeeper has continually said the dams have a troubling history of acute oil spills and regular oil leaks, and other pollution. What is the status of this issue today? Is oil pollution at the dams being reduced?
The Army Corps recently admitted that, thanks to our litigation, oil handling practices and accountability at the dams has improved, and this has resulted in less oil entering the Columbia and Snake rivers. While certain dams still lack final Clean Water Act permits, our litigation has already made a difference in the amount of oil reaching the river.
CBB: Toxicity in Columbia River fish species is another issue in which Columbia Riverkeeper has been involved. Over the years research has shown alarming levels of heavy metals, toxic flame retardants, cancer-causing PCBs, and endocrine disrupting chemicals in some fish species, including salmon and steelhead. Can we assume that today these toxins are being reduced in the river?
Columbia Riverkeeper, along with many partners, tribes, state governments, and EPA are working to combat new and legacy sources of toxic contamination in the fish we eat. Some of those efforts are showing progress. We must celebrate incredible success stories, from Oregon’s historic decision to adopt some of the nation’s most protective water quality standards to protect people’s health to Clean Water Act enforcement to Pesticide Stewardship Partnerships. But monitoring of pollution in fish tissue is limited, and new chemicals are emerging all the time and reaching the river in ways that evade traditional treatment and Clean Water Act protections. We have a lot of work to do to protect all people that eat locally-caught fish.
CBB: A common refrain from some in Columbia River basin salmon recovery circles is that there is too much litigation. As Executive Director of a group that has effectively used litigation and often wins in court, how would you characterize the role of litigation in Columbia Basin salmon recovery?
Critical. Our government and industries–from hydro to ag to corporate polluters–had decades to prevent Endangered Species Act listings. And they’ve had decades to recover the the Northwest’s iconic salmon and steelhead. They failed. Litigation has, and will continue to be, critical to ensure the Columbia remains swimmable and fishable for generations to come. Uncertainty about the future of salmon abounds. We promise this: Columbia Riverkeeper will keep advocating for healthy, harvestable runs of Columbia Basin salmon—in the courtroom, streets, and media, and in Congress. Salmon, and the species and cultures they support, are simply too important to the Pacific Northwest to do anything else.
For background on some of the topics discussed above see:
–CBB, Sept. 30, 2021, EPA ISSUES POLLUTION DISCHARGE PERMITS FOR LOWER SNAKE DAMS, INCLUDES TEMPERATURE CONTROL STRATEGIES https://cbbulletin.com/epa-issues-pollution-discharge-permits-for-lower-snake-dams-includes-temperature-control-strategies/
— CBB, September 23, 2021, “Temperature TMDL: EPA Outlines Details Of A Warming Columbia/Snake River Exceeding Water Quality Standards,” https://cbbulletin.com/temperature-tmdl-epa-outlines-details-of-a-warming-columbia-snake-river-exceeding-water-quality-standards/
— CBB, August 19, 2021, “Can We Cool Down Columbia, Snake Rivers For Salmon, Steelhead? EPA Says Dams, Climate Change ‘Dominant Sources of Impairment,’” https://cbbulletin.com/can-we-cool-down-columbia-snake-rivers-for-salmon-steelhead-epa-says-dams-climate-change-dominant-sources-of-impairment/
— CBB, January 8, 2021, “EPA Releases Final ‘Cold Water Refuges Plan’ Identifying Cooler Water Zones In Lower Columbia That Give Salmonids Relief From High Temps,” https://cbbulletin.com/epa-releases-final-cold-water-refuges-plan-identifying-cooler-water-zones-in-lower-columbia-that-give-salmonids-relief-from-high-temps/
— CBB, April 2, 2020, “EPA Loses Again In Ninth Circuit, Must Move Forward On Setting Temperature Limits For Columbia/Snake River, Or Appeal To Supreme Court,” https://cbbulletin.com/epa-loses-again-in-ninth-circuit-must-move-forward-on-setting-temperature-limits-for-columbia-snake-river-or-appeal-to-supreme-court/
— CBB, September 18, 2020, “EPA’s TMDL Document Aimed At Keeping Water Temps Healthy For Columbia/Snake Salmon Draws Far-Ranging Criticisms,” https://cbbulletin.com/epas-tmdl-document-aimed-at-keeping-water-temps-healthy-for-columbia-snake-salmon-draws-far-ranging-comments-criticisms/
— CBB, May 21, 2020, “EPA Releases Temperature Limit Study (TMDL) For Columbia/Snake River; Linked To State Water Quality Permits For Mainstem Dams,” https://cbbulletin.com/epa-releases-temperature-limit-study-tmdl-for-columbia-snake-river-linked-to-state-water-quality-permits-for-mainstem-dams/
— CBB, March 5, 2020, “EPA Challenges Appeals Court Ruling On Setting Temperature Limits For Columbia/Snake Rivers, Wants Re-hearing,” https://cbbulletin.com/epa-challenges-appeals-court-ruling-on-setting-temperature-limits-for-columbia-snake-rivers-wants-re-hearing/