Groups challenge EPA to act on heat-driven salmon kills

In response to rising water temperatures and inaction by federal agencies, Pacific Northwest groups are filing to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take action and prevent massive, heat-driven fish kills. 

“For over 15 years the federal government sat on its hands instead of meeting its obligations to protect Idaho’s endangered salmon and steelhead,” said IRU Executive Director Kevin Lewis. “We’re giving them 60 days to start the process, or we’re going to take them to court.”

Last year scientists recorded the warmest year on record, and hot water killed 250,000 adult sockeye salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers. The groups, including Columbia Riverkeeper, Snake River Waterkeeper, Idaho Rivers United, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association and the Institute for Fisheries Resources, said that can’t happen again.

They filed a notice of intent to sue the EPA on Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. If the agency does not finalize a pollution budget—called a Total Maximum Daily Load under the Clean Water Act—within 60 days or agree to a settlement, the groups will seek a court order compelling the agency  to issue the pollution budget in order to protect salmon from hot water.

In 2003, EPA was nearing completion of a plan when dam operators pressured EPA to abandon the effort. 

“Our members’ livelihoods depend on healthy salmon runs,” said Glen Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and the Institute for Fisheries Resources. “It’s simply unacceptable to let hot water kill otherwise-healthy adult salmon before they can spawn.”

The public interest law firm Advocates for the West represents these groups pro bono. Advocates for the West litigates to protect western public lands, waters, and wildlife. For more information visit our partners at,,, and

Washington, Oregon, and Idaho list the Columbia and Snake rivers as too hot to protect salmon. In 2000, at the request of Washington and Oregon, EPA agreed to develop a legally enforceable plan—called a Total Maximum Daily Load or pollution budget—to address the problem. In 2003, EPA conducted a study to understand the causes of hot water in the Columbia and Snake rivers and began developing the pollution budget. But dam operators objected and EPA shelved the plan. Why? EPA found that dams are the main cause of temperature problems.

What is the law?

The Clean Water Act sets a ceiling for how high river temperatures can reach before states, or EPA, must step in and develop a pollution budget. The Endangered Species Act protects critically imperiled species from extinction. But the government agencies in charge of the Columbia and Snake dam system aren’t obeying the law. In late July 2015, the Columbia’s temperature at Bonneville Dam exceeded 72°F—well above 68°F EPA set as the maximum temperature to prevent lethal impacts to salmon. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this is the third summer in a row where water temperatures in the Columbia and Snake are higher than ever recorded.

Fishermen and river users weren’t the only ones who saw the problem: 

  • EPA: “the need to lower water temperatures becomes more critical as the Pacific Northwest Region continues to address...climate change.”  
  • National Marine Fisheries Service and the Army Corps proposed a few measures to address the problems seen in 2015, but EPA criticized those proposals as “limited to micro-scale temperature improvements at specific dams.”  
  • The Fish Passage Center, an independent federal research group, said that those proposals “obscure[ed] the primary lesson from the 2015 experience, which is that under a climate change scenario, the long-recognized and largely unaddressed problem of high water temperatures in the [Columbia and Snake rivers] becomes an ever-increasing threat to the survival of salmon.” 

Click here to read the filing.