Salmon and Steelhead Die-Offs in Columbia and Snake Rivers

Salmon and Steelhead Die-Offs in Columbia and Snake Rivers

Current Status:

Date Filed:
Aug 15, 2016

Case Title:
Columbia Riverkeeper v. Scott Pruitt, Administrator of EPA

Staff attorney(s):
Bryan Hurlbutt


Institute for Fisheries Resources

Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations

Snake River Waterkeeper

Columbia Riverkeeper

Idaho Rivers United

To Protect:


Date won/settled:
December 20, 2019


Case Information:

May 19, 2020 — EPA released its TMDL to control heat pollution in the Columbia and Snake rivers. EPA’s plan is further evidence that removing the four Lower Snake River dams is necessary to restore salmon and orcas.

March 30, 2020 – The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the EPA’s petition to rehear this case. Not a single judge showed interest in rehearing the case.

Now, unless it seeks US Supreme Court review, EPA will finally have to prepare a plan to address the Columbia River Basin’s warm water and the lethal effects it has on wild salmon and steelhead populations. 

December 20, 2019 – The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in our favor and ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect Columbia basin salmon and steelhead from dangerously warm river temperatures. In its conclusion, the Court opinion states:

“Because Washington and Oregon have conclusively refused to develop and issue a temperature TMDL for the Columbia and Snake Rivers, the EPA is obligated to act under § 1313(d)(2). This constructive submission of no TMDL triggers the EPA’s duty to develop and issue its own TMDL within 30 days, and it has failed to do so. The time has come—the EPA must do so now.”

May 15, 2019 – Advocates for the West filed our latest brief opposing EPA’s appeal of our district court win last fall ordering EPA to comply with the Clean Water Act and address excessive water temperatures that kill salmon and steelhead migrating in the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

October 16, 2018 – Advocates for the West won a strong decision in this case, with the court ordering EPA to protect Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead from dangerously warm river water temperatures. EPA was given 30 days from the date of the Order to approve or disapprove the constructively submitted TMDL at issue in this case, and 30 days after a disapproval to issue a new TMDL.

December 13, 2017 – Advocates for the West filed our reply brief, refuting EPA’s assertions that the agency and the states should be given even more time work on the temperature TMDL.  EPA and the states have already wasted 19 years and allowed water temperature problems to get worse, so we urge the court to order EPA to issue the TMDL within a year.

August 15, 2016 –  In response to rising water temperatures and inaction by federal agencies, Advocates for the West filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asking the EPA to take action and prevent massive, heat-driven fish kills. In 2015 scientists recorded the warmest year on record, and hot water killed 250,000 adult sockeye salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers.

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 (TMDL) 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 because the agency found that dams are the main cause of temperature problems; in response, the EPA halted the plan.

February 23, 2017 – Advocates for the West filed suit against Scott Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for the EPA’s failure to protect salmon and steelhead from high water temperatures on the Columbia and Snake rivers in Oregon and Washington.

Pruitt is known for his obstructionist actions toward EPA and denial of climate change. Our lawsuit names him as the defendant in an effort to force Pruitt to acknowledge the urgent need for EPA to write a plan to keep the rivers cool enough for salmon and steelhead in the face of climate change.

August 30, 2017 – Advocates for the West filed the opening brief in our case against EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt for failing to honor the agency’s promise to protect Northwest salmon and steelhead from lethal water temperatures.

Back in 2000, EPA promised to issue a Clean Water Act pollution budget (a “total maximum daily load” or “TMDL”) to address high water temperature problems on the mainstem Columbia and lower Snake Rivers caused primarily by dams and their reservoirs.  But now–17 years later–EPA has failed to follow through on its commitment. And the results have been devastating.

In 2015, water temperatures on the Columbia and lower Snake rose to deadly levels.  Around 250,000 endangered adult Snake River sockeye salmon died while trying to migrate to their Idaho spawning grounds–a loss of 96% of the 2015 sockeye run.

The Columbia and lower Snake continue to exceed acceptable temperature levels. Steelhead runs have collapsed to dismal levels, prompting Idaho Fish and Game to take the unprecedented step of prohibiting anglers from keeping any steelhead in 2017. And temperature problems are only expected to get worse due to climate change.