Controversial US dams violate Clean Water Act

A federal district court has ruled that the US government’s operation of four dams on the lower Snake River violates the Clean Water Act, proving that that the dams raise water temperatures and dissolved nitrogen above mandatory water quality standards.


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In a 16 February ruling, the federal district court in Portland, Oregon, ordered the dams’ operators, the US Army Corps of Engineers, to protect the river’s water quality when planning its operation of the dams and their reservoirs. The Army Corps must also produce a decision that complies with the Clean Water Act to protect threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead in the river, named as the US’s most threatened, within 60 days. Reports by environmental groups have always maintained that the dams have driven salmon and steelhead to the brink of extinction and want them removed (see related story).

Specifically, the Court held that “the operation of the dams on the lower Snake River has a significant effect on the exceedences of state water quality standards…. it was a clear error of judgment by the Corps not to address compliance with its legal obligations under the Clean Water Act.”

The legal action had been brought about by a coalition of environmental groups, the State of Oregon and a US tribe, the Nez Perce, and was represented in court by the legal NGO, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund (ELDF). “I cannot overstate the importance of this ruling for native salmon and steelhead,” said Kristen Boyles, an ELDF lawyer. “Last year the Court ruled that the Army Corps had to comply with the Clean Water Act like everyone else, and this ruling confirms that the agency has been violating the law year after year. We finally have a legal handle to heal and restore our rivers.”

The Snake River is the largest tributary of the Columbia River, in whose tributaries up to 45% of all Columbia Basin chinook salmon once hatched. The reservoirs behind the dams, the last of which was completed in 1975, slow water velocity and increase the river’s cross section, exposing more water to heating by the sun for longer periods, as well as causing increases in the level of dissolved gas in river water. Both high temperatures and elevated levels of dissolved gas are harmful or lethal to salmon and steelhead, and in 1997, both the Environmental Protection Agency and the States of Washington and Oregon put the Army Corps on notice that its operations of the four lower Snake River dams were violating water quality standards for temperature and dissolved gas. The Army Corps admits violating the water quality standard for dissolved gas.

“The federal government has to take water quality, salmon protection, and energy conservation seriously, and do so immediately if we are going to a fishing industry in the future,” said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, which was involved in the case. “The Court’s order provides yet another reason for the government to seriously consider removal of these four dams in its long-term plan.”

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