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Q&A on Pollution Permits with
Columbia Riverkeeper's Miles Johnson

by Miles Johnson
NW Fishletter, November 7, 2022

Permits give Washington and Oregon authority to compel the Corps to make significant changes
-- potentially including reservoir drawdowns -- to address the dams' contribution to temperature crisis.

This Sockeye adult is the first to return of 2015 to Idaho's Redfish Lake near Stanley, Idaho NW Fishletter: Can you give me a brief history about how this all started?

Miles Johnson: This all started in the 2000s when there were multiple instances of major oil spills on the Columbia and Snake rivers -- that's what piqued Riverkeepers' and others' interest in addressing this problem. We started investigating and found that oil spills -- and other leakage from dam components -- were a constant and ongoing problem, and one we thought would be best addressed through Clean Water Act permits under the same framework as other types of water pollution. So, we filed suit against the [U.S.] Army Corps of Engineers, originally with respect to the four dams on the lower Columbia River and the four dams on the lower Snake River in 2014.

Fishletter: Why are these permits important, even though they allow dam operators to discharge some pollutants?

Johnson: Where we have big old pieces of machinery like dams in the middle of the river, and where the river's flowing through them, there's potential for oil leakage to occur. In the Corps' own admission, these litigations have forced them to do a better job managing oil leaks and being more accountable to where all the oil goes in a dam. It is, I think, having a tangible impact on the amount of oil that goes into the river, even though it's not perfect. The settlements with the Corps also include a requirement to study alternative lubricants, and where feasible, to use oils and greases that are less toxic.

Fishletter: In my basic understanding, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits deal with point-source pollutants, such as oil, lubricants and water temperature changes when it's used to cool dam mechanisms. But these lawsuits are also impacting the nonpoint source of the warming of water caused by ambient air temperatures heating the pooled water behind the dams, is that correct?

Johnson: Yes. In order to get an NPDES permit, a dam operator must first receive a [Section] 401 water quality certificate from the state, according to the Clean Water Act. Dams that go through FERC relicensing have to get a water quality certificate during relicensing. But for the federal dams, which do not go through FERC relicensing, the certificates will help significantly with getting the dams to stop violating the water temperature standards.

Fishletter: How will water temperature impacts from dams be addressed?

Johnson: Oregon and Washington, with broad collaboration, are beginning to write an implementation plan for the total maximum daily load for temperature in the Columbia and lower Snake rivers that EPA wrote. The NPDES permits for the lower Snake River dams require the Corps to meet the load allocations for those dams as determined by the TMDL. The NPDES permits also lay out a process -- the water quality attainment process -- by which the Corps will study ways that each dam can meet the load allocations and address the TMDL implementation plan.

Fishletter: How will warmer water temperatures caused by climate change be addressed?

Johnson: The plans and studies going forward are going to have to account for climate change -- not just meeting water quality standards under current conditions, but looking 20, 30 or 50 years out into the future. If we're going to have healthy and harvestable salmon runs, how are we going to do that in the context of a changing climate?

In 2015 and in 2021 we saw really, really extensive fish kills of endangered salmon in the Columbia River due to heat, and the dams are a key contributor to the temperature pollution we see in the lower Columbia and lower Snake rivers. It's long past time we solve this problem, and if we don't solve it soon, we may run out of time for some fish, like Snake River sockeye and Snake River spring-summer Chinook.

Fishletter: At what point in the process of getting NPDES permits are all the main-stem dams?

Johnson: For the federal dams: the four Snake River dams -- Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite -- have final NPDES permits that are now in effect. A comment period for the four lower Columbia River dams -- Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day and McNary -- has recently closed, and EPA is expected to make a decision on them soon.

For Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams, the Washington [State] Department of Ecology and Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation issued water quality certifications, which could still be appealed.

For PUD dams: Chelan County PUD settled a notice of intent to sue in 2018, and has applied for permits for Rocky Reach and Rock Island dams. A judge just approved a consent decree in the lawsuit against Douglas County PUD, after the Washington Department of Ecology issued a final NPDES permit for Wells Dam, which became effective in May. Grant County PUD is applying for permits for Wanapum and Priest Rapids dams and the lawsuit against them is stayed.

Fishletter: The four lower Snake River dams now have their NPDES permits. What happens next?

Johnson: The next process is the creation of water quality attainment plans. Over the next couple of years, the Corps, with approval from the Washington Department of Ecology, is going to study -- and, where feasible, implement -- solutions that will begin to address the dams' temperature pollution. This is really significant because it brings Washington into a position of regulatory authority over the Corps. It's a regulatory shift necessitated by the Corps' long-running failure to address the dams' temperature pollution.

Fishletter: What does this mean for the river now and into the future?

Johnson: The status quo is going to change. For a long time, the Corps operated its dams in violation of the Clean Water Act by discharging oil without permits and violating temperature standards designed to protect salmon and steelhead. These permits give Washington and Oregon authority to compel the Corps to make significant changes -- potentially including reservoir drawdowns -- to address the dams' contribution to the temperature crisis.

The Corps has obfuscated about the dams' temperature pollution for decades and failed to meaningfully address, let alone solve, this problem. I think these permitting processes are a really good avenue to bring meaningful, and much needed, changes to the hydro system.

Related Pages:
Warm Water Wreaks Havoc on Columbia River Fish by John Harrison, NW Power & Conservation Council, 8/12/15
Sockeye Arrives at Stanley Despite Warm Water by Associated Press, Teton Valley News, 7/29/15
Salmon Dying by the Thousands in Hot U.S. Rivers by Ted Ranosa, Tech Times, 7/29/15
First Sockeye of Year Returns to Redfish Creek Despite Hot Rivers by Rocky Barker, Idaho Statesman, 7/28/15
Why Are Thousands of Migratory Salmon Dying Before They Can Spawn? by Courtney Sherwood, Christian Science Monitor, 7/27/15
Biologists Bring Sockeye into Idaho on Trucks to Get Them Out of Hot Water by Rocky Barker, Idaho Statesman, 7/17/15
Sockeye Salmon Suffer Infections in Warm Columbia River System by Rich Landers, Spokesman-Review, 7/17/15
Half of Columbia River Sockeye Salmon Dying Due to Hot Water by Associated Press, The Oregonian, 7/18/15

Miles Johnson is senior attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect and restore Columbia River water quality. Beginning in 2014, the group began filing a series of lawsuits asserting hydroelectric dam operators have failed to get National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits as required under the Clean Water Act. Eight years later, the four lower Snake River dams have permits and all of the main-stem Columbia River dams are in the process of seeking or attaining permits. NW Fishletter asked Johnson about the big picture of this permitting process and why it matters.
Q&A on Pollution Permits with Columbia Riverkeeper's Miles Johnson
NW Fishletter, November 7, 2022

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