Salmon in the Snake River are in hot water, and so is the Army Corps of Engineers. On Feb. 16, a federal judge gave the Corps 60 days to come up with a plan to reduce temperatures and dissolve gas content along the river. The court ruled that the Corps violated the Clean Water Act by not adhering to state water codes in its operation of four major dams on the lower Snake.
Summer heat raises temperatures in Snake River reservoirs above the 68-degree maximum imposed by Washington state water quality standards. Fish biologists say high temperatures may prove lethal to salmon by delaying migration, weakening juveniles and facilitating disease. High quantities of gas absorbed by water as it spills over the dams pose another violation of state standards, inducing a condition in salmon similar to the bends in humans.
So far, the Corps has remained silent, but environmentalists are cheering. "It's huge," says Save our Wild Salmon's Nicole Cordan of the ruling. "The Corps was saying it was above the law."
Possible solutions include the importation of cooler water from Idaho's drought-depleted Dworshak Reservoir or costly modifications to dam spillways. But salmon advocates hope the expense of compliance with the Clean Water Act will tip the scales in favor of a third option: breaching the dams.
Says Rob Masonis of American Rivers, "This should provide the basis for a more honest assessment of whether to keep or dismantle the dams."