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State, federal agencies to map and protect cold water refuges for fish in Columbia and Willamette

Release Date: 11/03/2015
Contact Information: Michael Milstein, NOAA Fisheries, 503-231-6268, michael.milstein@noaa.gov; Suzanne Skadowski, EPA Public Affairs, 206-553-2160, skadowski.suzanne@epa.gov

Biological Opinion on Oregon temperature standards calls for new steps on Columbia, Willamette

(Seattle – November 3, 2015) The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will work with NOAA Fisheries over the next three years on plans to locate, protect and restore zones of cold water habitat for fish in the Columbia and lower Willamette Rivers.

Research has found that when river temperatures rise, salmon and steelhead seek out such cold water areas as crucial stopovers during their migrations upstream on the way to spawn. Such “cold water refugia” are often found at the confluence of the rivers with colder tributaries such as the Clackamas on the Willamette River and the White Salmon, Deschutes and Wind rivers on the Columbia.

Scientists now believe the cold water refugia play an important role in the survival and migration of adult salmon and steelhead as rivers warm during the summer, and will likely become increasingly important with climate change.

“Cold water is the lifeblood of these fish we are all working so hard to protect,” said Will Stelle, West Coast Regional Administrator of NOAA Fisheries. “But that critical lifeblood is under threat from many factors, including climate change. We applaud the commitment by EPA and Oregon DEQ to work hard on behalf of salmon by mapping and restoring these essential cold water refugia.”

The agreement between DEQ, EPA and NOAA Fisheries to identify and protect cold water refugia comes as part of today’s release of a NOAA Fisheries biological opinion reviewing Oregon’s water temperature standard, including the temperature criterion of 68 degrees Fahrenheit for the lower Willamette and Columbia rivers. The biological opinion examined whether the standards adopted by the state under the Clean Water Act sufficiently protect salmon, steelhead, eulachon, green sturgeon and Southern Resident killer whales – all species listed under the Endangered Species Act.

NOAA Fisheries completed the biological opinion as part of the settlement of a lawsuit over the Oregon temperature standards by Northwest Environmental Advocates of Portland.

Dennis McLerran, EPA Regional Administrator in Seattle, also views last summer as a harbinger of future peril for fish.

“We need look no further than last summer’s tragic salmon deaths in the Columbia River system to know temperature is a serious problem for salmon,” said EPA’s McLerran. “We know that Climate Change means higher river temperatures need to be factored into our planning. By locating, documenting and protecting cool water refuges for fish, we can help give endangered salmon and trout a fighting chance. I’m calling on all federal agencies and partners with a stake in their recovery to support this effort and help these fish reach their home waters.”

NOAA Fisheries concluded in the biological opinion that the temperature standards must assure enough cold water refugia exist in the rivers for salmon and steelhead to migrate upstream safely.

EPA, DEQ and NOAA Fisheries agreed that the agencies could best assure sufficient cold water refugia in the rivers by developing plans to map the zones, making clear where they need to be protected and where they should be restored. NOAA Fisheries included development of the plans in the new biological opinion as what is called a “reasonable and prudent alternative” that will help avoid jeopardizing threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.

EPA will lead the development of a cold water refugia plan for the Columbia River, while the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality will develop a similar plan for the lower Willamette River. Both plans are scheduled to be completed within three years.