Back in July, KGW saw underwater video of salmon in the Little White Salmon River where it meets up with the Columbia. The video shows sockeye salmon covered in lesions and fungus — the result of water that was 71 degrees Fahrenheit.
According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, salmon exposed to water above 68 degrees Fahrenheit have an increased risk of stress, disease and death.
“The salmon are becoming sick and diseased and dying,” said Brett VandenHeuval, the executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, the group that took the video.
Columbia Riverkeeper has long maintained that the large reservoirs behind the dams along the lower Columbia are to blame, in part, for the warmer river water.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns and operates the dams. Clean Water Act permits would require the agency to reduce heat and other types of pollution from the dams, but the Corps does not have those permits.
“Any facility that discharges into a water body has to have a permit, just like any other factory. The Army Corps, though, does not. They are discharging completely illegally,” said VandenHuevel.
“We’ve been actively working towards obtaining them… They have just not been issued to us at this point,” said Matt Rabe, a spokesman for the Corps.
Rabe said the agency takes its Clean Water Act obligations very seriously and is working to find solutions to improve water quality while also providing hydropower to the region.
“Dams are a carbon-free source of energy and they are a major source of power for the entire Pacific Northwest,” said Rabe.
According to the lawsuit, back in 2015, more than 277,000 sockeye — about 55% of the total run returning from the ocean — died in the Columbia and Snake rivers due to warm water temperatures that year.
The Corps said it’s working on solutions to protect the fish, but Columbia Riverkeeper wants it to act fast.
“We think the Army Corps needs to take action now, before it’s too late,” said VandenHuevel. “Before certain runs go extinct.”