Snake River Dams Must be Removed to Satisfy Clean Water Act

Michael Johnsen

May 4, 2000

Four controversial dams on the lower Snake River may have to also meet the terms of the Clean Water Act in addition to complying with the Endangered Species Act, if they are to remain in place.

"I think the Clean Water Act will be a major part of the decision making process on whether or not to remove the dams," said Bill Dunbar, press secretary for the EPA.

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency informed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that removing four dams along the lower Snake River is probably the only option that will satisfy the Clean Water Act.

Environmental groups have been pushing for the removal of dams on the Snake and other rivers throughtout the U.S. "The EPA is confirming what we've been saying all along: that the four lower Snake River dams don't make sense for clean water and that removing them is the best option for protecting clean water and salmon," said Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation. "Scientists tell us that removing these four dams is vital for healthy salmon runs. Fishermen and communities will see widespread economic benefits from dam removal. And now we have another common sense, science-based reason to remove these dams: clean water."

The EPA's position comes in the wake of a recent National Marine Fisheries Service announcement that it will likely postpone dam removal for five to 10 years. Conservationists argue that a delay of this type could be disasterous for Snake River salmon and steelhead, whose extinctions are predicted to occur as early as 2017.

On March 24, a federal judge ruled that the Corps' operation of the lower Snake River dams must comply with Clean Water Act standards. The decision, which followed a lawsuit filed by conservation groups and the Nez Perce tribe, did not say whether the dams violate the act. But the EPA, one of nine federal agencies involved in the dam-removal decision, has concluded that the dams cause water-quality violations that degrade the health of the watershed, killing and injuring salmon. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also arrived at the conclusion that dam removal is the best alternative for salmon recovery.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sees it another way. The Corps claimed the dams do not adversely effect water quality, but the EPA findings contradict the agency's conclusion. The EPA delivered its comments in response to the Corps' $20 million Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the lower Snake River dams that was released in December 1999. The study outlined several alternatives to dam breaching, all of which were deemed "environmentally unsatisfactory" by the EPA.

EPA studies have demonstrated that the dams raise water temperatures by fluctuations that occur under free-flowing river conditions. Higher water temperatures threaten the survival of young salmon by decreasing their energy levels and changing the conditions which support their food supply. This can make them more susceptible to predators and disease, while changing the types of microbes found in the water. Thus, EPA was suprised to see conflicting results from the Corp's study.

"The draft environmental impact study does not adequately characterize the impact of the existing dams on water quality," the EPA noted. "We are particularly concerned with the ... treatment of temperature. The (study) concludes that the lower Snake River dams actually lower water temperatures. We believe that this conclusion results from selective use of data and selective use of modeling results."

Short of dam removal, eliminating the water pollution caused by the dams could cost taxpayers $460 million to $900 million. Many environmental organizations state that even these expensive efforts will not solve the problem caused by the dams.

If the Corps and the EPA do not reach an agreement on the findings, the issue will have to be settled at the