Oregon, feds to map cold water fish refuges in Columbia, Willamette rivers
By Kelly House
November 3, 2015
The water temperature standards state officials use to decide whether to allow certain activities on the Columbia and Willamette rivers do not ensure federally-protected fish have cool places to hide when the river gets dangerously hot.
That’s the conclusion NOAA Fisheries scientists made in a biological opinion signed Tuesday to comply with a court order to reassess temperature standards in the two rivers.
The order came as part of a legal settlement with Portland-based Northwest Environmental Advocates. The environmental group had challenged the standards as too weak to protect federally-listed salmon, steelhead, smelt, green sturgeon and killer whales.
In Tuesday’s assessment, NOAA found no fault with most of the temperature standards the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality uses to regulate industrial and municipal discharge, certain dam operations and other river uses that stand to affect the waterway.
“Even thought there would be some deaths and injuries under those circumstances, there were not enough to give us any concern about long-term survival and recovery,” said Jeff Lockwood, a NOAA Fisheries scientist who reviewed the temperature standards.
Under the warmest allowable conditions, Lockwood said, cold water refuge is essential. The state has never located Oregon’s places of refuge, nor made any determination of whether there are enough distributed throughout the river to protect fish.
As a result, Lockwood said, the standards are “difficult to interpret and apply.”
To fix it, the state environmental quality department and the federal Environmental Protection Agency will launch a three-year effort to map cold water refuges in the two rivers and develop a plan to make sure enough cool spots exist to get migrating salmon and steelhead upstream to spawn.
The federal agency will lead efforts in the Columbia River, while the state agency will map the lower 50 miles of the Willamette.
Water temperatures in the two rivers sometimes creep into the danger zone for cold water fish, stressing their immune systems and in some cases causing fish to perish in large numbers.
This summer was a particularly brutal one for salmon in the Columbia and Willamette, where temperature surges caused mass die-offs of chinook and sockeye salmon.
It’s unclear how many refuge spots are needed, much less whether Oregon has enough of them. However, Lockwood said, “I’m pretty sure we’ll find there are opportunities for restoration.”
Restoring refuges could come in the form of reconnecting river channels to floodplains, operating dams to release cool water at crucial times or reforming forestry and agricultural practices to protect cool streams.
“It really could be broad, in terms of the potential actions that could help,” said John Palmer of the EPA in Seattle. Depending which solutions are chosen, it could also take “a long time.”
Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates, said she’s happy to see NOAA Fisheries recommend better standards to keep fish cool. However, she expressed concerns that two agencies whose leaders have been “very resistant” to improving conditions for fish are in charge of mapping cool zones and deciding how many of them fish need.
Bell said she’s also concerned NOAA hasn’t clearly spelled out how coolwater zones should be protected. For example, she said, she would like to see a provision limiting angling in the refuges, where fish hunkering down during warm spells are easy targets.
Bell and other fish advocates are also pushing for forestry and agriculture reforms aimed at providing more shade along stream banks. The Oregon Department of Forestry is expected to address that issue in a meeting this week.
“Ultimately it just comes down to, is anything going to change on the ground?” Bell said. “That’s the goal of all this – to get the temperatures down – and you get temperatures down by keeping water in streams and then shading it.”
Tuesday’s report signifies a major landmark in a 12-year battle over Oregon’s approach to water temperature regulations, but the legal wrangling continues.
As part of the legal decision that led to Tuesday’s findings, a judge rejected the rationale Oregon used to determine how much heat its polluted water bodies could handle.
The state used the so-called natural conditions criterion, which has since been deemed illegal, to approve water temperatures as high as 90 degrees.
For salmon, anything beyond 60 degrees is dangerous.
Bell’s group is suing the state over its stance that pollution-control plans written under the old rules do not need to be revised.