- Columbia River Waterkeeper
- High water temperatures in the Snake and Columbia rivers made salmon susceptible to infection.
The lawsuit, filed in a Seattle federal court Feb. 23, alleges the EPA has been negligent in producing an action plan for saving dwindling salmon populations in the region. Its goal is to pressure the agency into issuing a pollution budget, or total maximum daily load (TMDL), for temperature pollution in the Columbia and Snake rivers in Oregon and Washington.
Litigants in the case don't expect much support from Pruitt, who earned a reputation as a climate change denier during his tenure as attorney general for the state of Oklahoma. In that capacity, he sued the EPA dozens of times, often to the advantage of the fossil fuel industry. Pruitt's confirmation as EPA administrator was criticized by environmental groups as an instance of the fox guarding the hen house, and the courts may be their best recourse to address the threats facing regional salmon.
"Luckily, Scott Pruitt doesn't run the federal court system," said Kevin Lewis, executive director of Idaho Rivers United. "Unless laws are changed, [Pruitt has] to run with what there is now."
Salmon can survive water temperatures of up to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, but dwindling flows, historically hot summers and dams have contributed to temperatures well above that. Higher water temperatures compromise the immune systems of the fish, making them susceptible to fungal and bacterial infections that cause open sores and ultimately prove fatal.
When explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark reached the Columbia River in the early 19th century, an estimated 30 million fish swam their way to headwaters in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. Today, salmon runs have been reduced by 90 percent, according to the lawsuit.
A TMDL would officially identify the problem, but Snake River Waterkeeper Buck Ryan said solutions are in short supply.
"The implication is an obvious one: There aren’t that many heat inputs to the Snake River. It’s just the water warming in reservoirs. The river runs hot," he said.
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The suit puts the spotlight on four dams on the Lower Snake River in Washington, which are alleged to have contributed significantly to rising water temperatures.
"I can say with some accuracy that the options are limited. Those four dams are part of the problem," Lewis said. "It's Idaho fish that are going extinct. Dams in Washington state are killing Idaho's fish."
Other organizations taking part in the lawsuit include the Columbia River and Snake River waterkeepers, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and The Institute for Fisheries Resources.