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Mainstem Temperature TMDL Not Ready for Public Review

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - June 13, 2003

A draft of Columbia and Snake river Total Maximum Daily Load, circulated as a preliminary draft by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency among participants in late September 2002, is still not ready for public review.

The EPA released the preliminary document for review among tribes, federal natural resource and hydroelectric operating agencies, along with the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, and had planned to complete a draft for public review by November and to issue a final TMDL this month.

The TMDL for temperature is for the Columbia River from the Canadian border to the ocean and for the lower Snake River from the confluence of the Salmon River to the river's confluence with the Columbia River. However, the EPA is now saying it doesn't know when the draft TMDL will be ready to be released for that public review.

The EPA and states concluded last year that discharges from factories along the mainstem Columbia and lower Snake rivers have very little impact on the rivers' temperature, but that the 19 dams on the two rivers do. An EPA fact sheet (available on the Internet at says that water temperature on the river frequently exceeds state and tribal water quality standards and that the frequency of those annual violations has increased from 3 percent without the dams to 13 percent with the dams in place. "The dams appear to be the major cause of warming of the temperature regimes of the rivers," the fact sheet says.

Once those findings were released, Northwest federal dam operators, who had not been fully engaged in the process at the executive level, began to worry about the implications of such findings on future dam operations, according to Richard Parkin, EPA's Columbia River TMDL coordinator.

"When the preliminary draft was released, there was some concern by federal agencies about the possible ramifications on the dams," Parkin said. "There was also some disagreement about how the TMDL should be structured."

Federal dam operators also questioned EPA's role in the process, believing that the TMDL was the sole responsibility of the states, said Parkin. "They were looking at the appropriateness of the federal government issuing a TMDL," Parkin said.

Russell Harding of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality said the White House Council on Environmental Quality and federal agencies have discussed EPA's role in the mainstem TMDL. That is why DEQ and the Washington Department of Ecology sent a letter to James Connaughton, Chair of the CEQ, strongly urging it to allow EPA's continued involvement.

"The purpose of the letter was that we had heard that some agencies had gone to the CEQ asking that the EPA be removed from the Columbia River TMDL," Harding said. He added that the letter outlines the EPA's importance and contribution to the TMDL, urging the federal agency's continued involvement.

The Feb. 12, 2003 letter, signed by Stephanie Hallock, DEQ director, and Tom Fitzimmons, director of Ecology, reminded the CEQ that the TMDL is not optional and is necessary to meet Clean Water Act requirements. "We are both operating under federal Court consent decrees and schedules," the letter said. "Not only would the removal of the EPA from this effort severely compromise our mandated schedules, but we would still have to develop and promulgate TMDLs for temperature on the Columbia River."

It went on to say that the "EPA's involvement is critical to the success of this collaborative process. The states and EPA have pledged to work cooperatively to ensure that improvements to water quality are realized despite the jurisdictional complexity surrounding this river."

The states agreed to complete total dissolved gas TMDLs, but they need the EPA's technical expertise to complete the temperature TMDL, according to the letter. The states noted that the federal agencies had been invited to all the meetings over three years while developing the TMDL, but "have not participated as actively perhaps as they could have."

"We hope that the action agencies will join with the states and EPA to conclude this important regional TMDL and integrate it with the other Columbia River planning efforts so that we can look forward to a fully functioning hydropower system, supported beneficial uses, and improvement in water quality," the letter concludes.

The federal Clean Water Act (1972) requires that every river not in compliance with state water quality standards must have a TMDL, which defines the maximum allowed pollution for a water body and allocates pollutant loads among the various sources. The Columbia River is on Washington's and Oregon's 303(d) list of water quality impaired bodies of water for temperature and dissolved gas, and the lower Snake River is on the Washington and Idaho 303(d) list. Although it would traditionally be the states' job to develop the TMDL, that duty was handed over to the EPA because the rivers touch on three states as well as the Canadian border.

While the Bonneville Power Administration is mostly concerned about its regional dams, all the federal agencies, particularly the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, are concerned about the implications a Columbia and Snake river TMDL would have on all federal dams across the United States, said Roy Fox, manager of Federal Hydropower Projects at BPA.

"In essence, EPA seeks to establish a regime under which dam operators must achieve standards that are incompatible with their fundamental operation requirements," Fox wrote in a letter to John Iani, EPA regional administrator.

Among the issues that must be resolved within the temperature TMDL, according to Fox, are:

"These are the types of issues that need to be clarified," Fox said. "And, they will be resolved one way or another. They are issues that are lingering in other areas of the country, as well."

Even though these issues are out there and need resolution, he added, that hasn't stopped dam operators, working with federal resource agencies, states and tribes, from making progress at dams to meet CWA and Endangered Species Act requirements.

Although the release of the draft TMDL has been delayed, Parkin said all the agencies are still working on it, but they are also developing an implementation plan that will be released in tandem with the TMDL. He said the TMDL identifies what each dam must do, while the implementation plan identifies what is possible.

"What we want is for the two processes -- the TMDL and the implementation plan -- to catch up with each other" before releasing the draft for public review, Parkin said.

Still, after discussions with dam operators and others, the EPA made in November some changes to the preliminary draft TMDL it released in September. The principle change is an incorporation of seasonal temperature limits at each of the dams, rather than providing one temperature allocation that applies to the entire year. That, Parkin said, applies the TMDL just to the time of year in which temperature is impaired, which is late summer through late fall. That is a time when the river cools slower than it did when in a natural state.

Related Sites:
EPA Region 10:
Columbia/Snake River TMDL Web Page:
Office of Water TMDL Home Page:
Oregon DEQ:
Washington DOE:
Idaho Department of Environmental Quality:

Mike O'Bryant
Mainstem Temperature TMDL Not Ready for Public Review
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 13, 2003

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