‘Hot water is a silent killer:’ Organization files lawsuit against U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over dams’ water pollution

COLUMBIA RIVER, Wash. — A Pacific Northwest organization has filed a lawsuit against the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) for allegedly illegally polluting the Columbia River which is in violation of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA).

Columbia Riverkeeper, a nonprofit in Hood River, Ore., claims that multiple USACE-operated dams, including The Dalles Dam, John Day Dam, and McNary Dam, are discharging oil and toxic chemicals and raising the temperature of the water to a degree unsuitable for fish and wildlife.

The suit requires the Army Corps to get CWA permits “to otherwise ‘restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.'”

But this isn’t the first time the nonprofit has sued the USACE.

They filed back in 2013 for a similar situation. That suit settled in 2014 and, according to Columbia Riverkeeper officials, the USACE agreed to apply for the necessary permits that would place regulatory limits on its discharges of heated water, grease, and oil from the dams over a seven-year allowance.

However, that multi-year period ended on August 14, 2021 and the lawsuit contends the corps failed to obtain those permits.

Now, Columbia Riverkeeper officials said they are once again having to take action in court to try to protect and restore the waters.

Brett VandenHeuvel, the nonprofit’s executive director, said that it’s disappointing solutions have not been developed.

“We’re trying to protect clean cool water so that salmon can survive,” VandenHeuvel said. “People care about this. People want to see salmon survive and thrive but we’re not seeing it in action from our federal government. This is one step along the journey to try and say hey, we can’t keep the status quo, it’s not working, we need to take this seriously.”

According to the lawsuit, scientists estimate that more than “277,000 sockeye, about 55 percent of the total run returning from the ocean to spawn, died in the Columbia and Snake Rivers due to warm water temperatures.”

For VandenHeuvel, that’s unacceptable.

“If we don’t do something about this hot water crisis caused by the dams then we will see runs of salmon go extinct,” VandenHeuvel said. “Salmon are so important to our culture, to our economy, to the people of the Pacific Northwest, and the fact that we’re having conversations about extinction is heartbreaking.”

Research shows that the dams’ water temperature can impact endangered salmon and steelhead. VandenHeuvel added that one solution would be removing some of the dams in the Pacific Northwest.

“They regularly spill and leak oil. The river is too hot for salmon to survive long-term because of the stagnant reservoirs behind the dams,” VandenHeuvel said. “Salmon need cold, clear water to survive. Hot water is a silent killer and we think that the government can do better with that as well.”

Washington Governor Jay Inslee said that on Dec. 14 he would announce his legislative and budget proposals for salmon protection in 2022, citing climate change, habitat loss, and pollution.

“I want to be able to say to my children, and to their children, that we are doing everything we can to protect this miraculous species,” VandenHeuvel said.

The USACE sent KAPP-KVEW this statement:

“We just became aware of the lawsuit last week and will coordinate with the Department of Justice to determine the appropriate next steps.  The US Army Corps of Engineers applied for the permits at issue in this complaint in 2015, and we take our Clean Water Act obligations seriously.  Our team is working tirelessly to find solutions that balance all of the purposes of the system, including the needs of fish and wildlife, flood risk management, navigation, power generation, recreation, water supply, and water quality. To dispel misinformation, USACE notes that Columbia Riverkeeper’s press release does not accurately describe our ability to manage water behind the dams in the lower Columbia River. Although the pools behind the Lower Columbia River dams are considered reservoirs, they are largely not storage reservoirs, but rather run-of-river facilities. This limits our ability to impact water temperatures by drawing down water levels in the spring.”

View the full lawsuit here.

To sign a petition urging Gov. Inslee and others to “take action,” click here.

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