It’s the white surge, the chilling rush, that pure sheer gorge carving power that made them famous. Year after year, Oregon’s rivers reel in windsurfers, kitesurfers, and whitewater rafters. By definition, extreme sports demand extreme conditions.

But it’s another extreme that’s drawing headlines. Overheated watersheds. “We’ve got a warm water crisis on the Columbia. It’s tragic and frustrating and keeping me very busy!”

How warm water is impacting salmon

Columbia Riverkeeper’s Water Quality Director, Lorri Epstein watched a record salmon run turn into a record die-off. “80% of the sockeye are dead or dying because of warm temperatures.”

Columbia Riverkeeper Epstein is charged with the same duties Riverkeeper organizations everywhere share. Trying to secure “swimmable, drinkable, fishable” waters in her watershed. For her, that’s a 1200 mile run from the Rockies at the Canadian border to the Pacific at Astoria, Oregon.

Her teams of volunteers sample for e.coli and other pathogens in a state that faces everything from suction dredge gold mining to municipal runoffs and toxic waste dumps.

But for Epstein the most serious threat is clear. “Temperature is the most pervasive water quality issue we have on the Columbia River and it is expected to get worse with climate change.”

The salmon die-off is the clearest example of the repercussions.

On the Columbia River, it’s mainly the sockeye. Further south, steelhead, and coho salmon are under pressure on the Rogue River. And it’s not just a story of a summer heatwave.

“Snow pack in our watershed is about 13% of average this year,” says Rogue Riverkeeper and Program Director Forrest English whose 3.3 million acre watershed runs 346 kilometres (215 miles) from the volcanic remains of Crater Lake to the Pacific Ocean.

“Last year, it was 17% of average. Compared to California where many of the watersheds are in the three to five percent range.”

Shallow waters run hot. When that happens, there are higher concentrations of bacteria lethal to salmon. “It’s not entirely true that the solution to pollution is dilution. But it certainly helps. There’s just less medium out there for things to diffuse into.”

We can’t usually do much about tomorrow’s weather, or next week’s or next year’s. Can’t bring on the rains. But according to Epstein the river could be cooled. This year and certainly next.

Photo by dishwab on flickr

“The dams are the biggest issue for temperature on the Columbia River. This year’s drought and high temperatures are exacerbating an existing issue.”

Usually, when we talk about dams and salmon the problem is that the dam blocks the salmon’s migration route. In this case, Epstein is more focused on dams contributing to lower levels and higher temperatures. This hits the salmon twice.

The overheated trip upstream can hold harmful levels of bacteria. The trip downstream has less current to help propel the salmon to the ocean.

Epstein is advocating for a release of some of the dammed water to raise the flow and cool the waters.

“My perspective on the Columbia is that it’s a significantly impacted river. There are 13 major large-scale dams on the mainstem Columbia.” Off the mainstem, along the tributaries, there’s another 470 throughout the basin.

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