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State has new water standards to protect fish

Critics say the changes aren't enough.

Statesman Journal
March 3, 2004

State and federal environmental-quality experts issued new water-quality standards for every fish-bearing waterway in Oregon Tuesday.

The new standards map out optimal water temperatures depending on time of year and waterway and are intended to protect endangered salmon and trout species.

“We have essentially redesigned 30 years of water-quality standards,” said Mark Charles of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

The standards are the result of a successful lawsuit filed by Northwest Environmental Advocates of Portland that claimed that the old standards did not meet requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act or the federal Clean Water Act.

The standards will affect all discharges from pipes and nonpoint pollution sources, such as runoff from agriculture, because those pollution sources affect temperature in rivers.

The standards are effective immediately; however, cities and industrial sites only need to meet the new standards upon renewal of their water-quality permits — about once every five years.

For the Salem area, the new standards aren’t much different from the old ones; for the mid-Willamette River, the new standard is 0.4 degrees higher.

The lack of change is partly what has critics so upset about the new standards.

“Our belief is that this set of standards amounts to one gigantic loophole for industrial and municipal sources and land activities,” said Nina Bell, executive director of the group that filed the lawsuit. “We think that too much of the landscape (for endangered species) will be too hot.”

Some experts contend that threatened salmon and trout need cold water to thrive.

Bell said that the state can “fudge” on where it will measure the temperature of discharge from a pipe.

The standards require officials to measure temperature at the edge of the “mixing zone,” which is the area where the discharge mixes with river water.

“In Oregon, that zone is set wherever it needs to be set,” she said. “It’s completely variable … It just moves to where there is no “impact” on temperature, and then it is determined that there is no impact on temperature.”

Bell doesn’t blame it all on DEQ.

“Political powers do not want to be more restrictive on logging and farming and grazing,” she said. “So we’ve seen governor after governor, along with legislatures, not doing anything to change the status quo.”

Under the lawsuit, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could have either written its own standards or approved the Oregon DEQ’s standards. On Tuesday, the federal agency accepted Oregon’s new rules — validation for the state’s efforts.

“I salute the scientists, agency staff, environmental groups, industry, tribes and all of those who have worked on the temperature problem for the past several years,” said EPA regional administrator John Iani. “Their combined efforts have brought Oregon these new water-quality/temperature standards that are truly the best in the business.”

The new standards also raised the required level of dissolved oxygen in the water between gravel used for spawning fish.

Locally, the new rules will allow the city of Salem’s Willow Lake Treatment Plant to discharge slightly warmer water into the Willamette River. Upgrades to the treatment plant will increase local sewer bills, but the new water standards might reduce those increases, said Mike Kortenhof of DEQ’s Salem office.

“In the Salem area, the changes aren’t that dramatic,” he said. “As with Willow Lake, it might cost point sources less to comply.”

Bill Bakke, executive director of the Native Fish Society, praised the state Department of Environmental Quality for letting science lead the discussion about water-temperature standards. He called them “progressive and well-informed,” but he noted that most waterways in the state are not meeting standards; they are too hot.

The Willamette River often exceeds temperature standards in the summer.

“A lot of streams are in lethal conditions for salmon rearing,” Bakke said. “How do you create the watershed changes to make these standards real?”

Beth Casper can be reached at (503) 589-6994.


New standards

What happened: The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, with approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, issued statewide water-quality standards Tuesday that mainly affect temperature in fish-bearing waterways.

The change: The state now has online maps of Oregon waterways with descriptions of the optimal temperature for the survival of salmon and trout species for each tributary and time of year. The old standards used an all-encompassing 64 degrees for the endangered fish.

The impact: The standards require that industrial and municipal sites with water-quality permits comply with the new standards upon renewal of their permits. They also affect nonpoint source pollution, such as runoff from agriculture and forestry practices.

The controversy: These standards are meant to protect salmon and trout habitat and increase their populations, but critics wonder whether they will have the intended effect. Some environmentalists argue that some governments and businesses don’t have to meet strict enough standards. Those affected might argue the standards are too strict.

What's at stake: Recovery of endangered salmon and trout populations and economic welfare of communities and their businesses.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s water-quality standards Tuesday. Call (800) 452-4011 for more information about the new standards.






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