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SOS Blog

Save Our Wild Salmon

Hot Water Report 1


Welcome to Save Our wild Salmon’s Hot Water Report 2022.

During the summer, this weekly report provides an update on real-time water temperatures in the lower Snake and Columbia River reservoirs via graphs and analyses, a summary on the highest weekly water temperatures at the forebay/reservoir of each dam, and the status of adult returns for different salmon and steelhead populations as they make their way back to their natal spawning grounds. We’ll hear first-hand from scientists, Tribal members, fishing guides, advocates, and other experts about the challenges facing the Columbia and Snake rivers - and our opportunities to improve and restore them - in order to recover healthy, resilient fish populations and the benefits they deliver to the Northwest’s culture, economy, and ecology.

The once-abundant anadromous fish populations of the Columbia-Snake River Basin are struggling to survive today in large part due to multiple harms caused by the system of federal dams and reservoirs. The federal hydro-system creates conditions that harm and kill both juvenile and adult fish, including by elevating water temperatures in large, stagnant reservoirs in the summer months. These cold-water fish begin to suffer harmful effects when water temperatures exceed 68° Fahrenheit. The longer and the higher these temperatures rise above 68°F, the greater the harm, including: migration disruption, increased metabolism, increased susceptibility to disease, reduced reproductive potential (by reducing egg viability), suffocation (warm water carries less oxygen), and in the worst case - death.

Today, these harmful hot water episodes above 68°F in the Columbia and Snake Rivers are increasing in duration, frequency, and intensity. Our changing climate is making a bad situation for the Northwest’s iconic fish worse. Our region and nation must take urgent action to maintain cool water temperatures - or we will lose these species forever. Restoring a freely flowing lower Snake River by removing its four federal dams is our only feasible option to address high water temperatures in this 140-mile stretch of river running through southeast Washington State. Restoring the Snake River is one essential element of what must be a larger regional strategy to protect and rebuild healthy, abundant salmon and steelhead populations in order to benefit other fish and wildlife populations, including critically endangered Southern Resident orcas, to uphold our nation’s promises to Native American tribes, and to ensure prosperous communities across the Northwest.

The Hot Water Report 2022 is a joint project of the Save Our wild Salmon Coalition, Columbia RiverkeeperAmerican Rivers, Endangered Species Coalition, Environment Washington, Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Wildlife Federation, National Resource Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Sierra Club, Snake River Waterkeeper, Spokane Riverkeeper, Wild Orca, and Wild Steelhead Coalition.

  II. READING THE DATA - Lower Snake and Columbia River Temperatures

Introduction: The daily mean temperature at the four reservoir forebays (immediately upstream from the dam) in the lower Snake River (above) and the lower Columbia River (below) for 2022 is represented with solid lines and their 10-year average (2012 - 2022) temperatures with dashed lines of the same color. The dotted line across the graph represents the 68°F “harm threshold” for adult and juvenile fish. Salmon and steelhead begin to suffer harmful effects when water temperatures exceed 68° Fahrenheit. The longer temperatures remain above 68°F and the higher the temperatures rise above 68°F, the more severe the potential effects, including: increased metabolism, increased susceptibility to disease, reduced reproductive potential, and/or death (see Issue 1 for more detailed information).

Discussion: Since April, temperatures in the lower Snake River and the lower Columbia River reservoirs have steadily moved upward. During April and May, trends have tracked closely with the 10-year average. In June, however, water temperatures dropped considerably below this average. This was good for cold-water species like salmon and steelhead, but since July, temperatures have reached and exceeded the 68°F “harm threshold” in the reservoirs on the lower Snake and Columbia River. Below, we present the highest temperatures for each reservoir on the lower Snake and Columbia River.

A note on data information: The mean water temperature data from these reports comes from the USGS Current Conditions for Washington State and the 10-year average water temperature data comes from the Fish Passage Center. There is no available data for Lower Monumental 10-year average water temperature. Graphs and tables were assembled by SOS Staff.


Harmful water temperatures in the lower Snake River reservoirs: This week, all reservoirs exceeded 68 degrees. The Little Goose Dam reservoir has spent 48 days above 68°F and similarly, the Ice Harbor Dam spent 46 consecutive days above 68°F.

The reservoir behind the Lower Granite registered the highest temperature at 71.96°F on August 31st - significantly above the level that cold-water fish require. The waters behind the Ice Harbor Dam registered the second highest temperature at 71.24°F.

* NOTE re: this week’s lower Snake River water temperatures: USGS Washington State has ended its daily recordings of lower Snake River water temperatures for 2022. However, considering the conditions we see in the lower Columbia Rivers (temperatures below), we know salmon are migrating through lethal conditions and temperatures. Next week, we’ll explore the highest recorded temperature for each reservoir during this summer.

This week, on the lower Columbia River, all reservoirs peaked over 68°F. The reservoirs behind the John Day Dam registered the highest temperature: 73.04°F.

 IV. Interview with Dr. Deborah Giles - Science and Research Director at Wild Orca

Giles photo 1Critically endangered Southern Resident Orcas need more chinook salmon: This week, we have a special addition to the Hot Water Report - an interview with Dr. Deborah Giles, one of the world’s leading experts on Southern Resident orcas. Dr.Giles is the Science and Research Director at Wild Orca - a non-profit organization - and SOS member organization - based in Washington State.

Highly social, highly intelligent Southern Resident killer whales have roamed the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest for hundreds of thousands of years – relying primarily on an abundance of large, fatty Chinook salmon for their diet. However, Southern Resident orcas face extinction today due to the steep declines of Chinook salmon populations across the Pacific Northwest. Only 73 individual orcas survive today.

Dr. Giles and other scientists agree there is an urgent need to remove the four lower Snake River dams to restore Snake River salmon runs, restore salmon habitats across the PNW, and protect marine habitats in order to increase their ability to reproduce, and increase their survival rate. Dr. Giles’ interview provides an in-depth look at the status of Southern Resident orcas, as well as actions our region should take to protect and restore both salmon and orcas.

 1. Dr. Giles, can you tell us a little bit about you and your work with Southern Resident orcas?

I've been researching Southern Residents professionally since 2005. I started my Masters in 2006 and finished up with my Masters and PhD in 2007 and 2014. All of that study was focused on the Southern Resident killer whales.

Orca Scat WildOrca 22I started working for the Scat project (at the UW) in 2009, and have continued this work (Health Monitoring Program) under Wild Orca. We use a scat detection dog (Eba) on the front of the boat to sniff out killer whale feces. We collect the fecal samples and analyze them for stress hormones, nutrition hormones, pregnancy hormones, and toxicants in the environment – basically man-made chemicals making their way up the food chain and into the blubber of the whales. We're also now looking at other threats such as Harmful Algal Bloom impacts and other forms of toxins that are released into the food web, and we're partnering with DFO (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) on that right now. Also, we can look at parasites, fungus, bacteria – pretty much anything you can imagine that can be looked at from a blubber biopsy or blood sample, we can determine from a fecal sample. And what's nice about the way that we do this is that we're far away from the whale so we non-invasively are able to collect these samples. Using Eba allows us to stay really far away from the backend of the animal.

2. Why are Snake River salmon important to Southern Resident orcas?

The Snake River would have contributed as much as 50% of the salmon that existed in the Columbia Basin, historically. And going back in time, there's no doubt that the Southern Resident killer whales co-evolved eating Pacific salmon, and specifically, the really, really large salmon that would have spawned in the Snake River. Even with the low abundance of Snake River salmon, we do see that the whales are targeting those fish and so in a nutshell, Snake River salmon would have been food that the whales would have eaten as tribes say – since time immemorial most likely. And the fact that there are so few of them now is impacting the whales overall health as a population. 

3. What is the connection between orcas and restoring the lower Snake River? Why is this region significant to Southern Resident orcas?

The Snake River is highly modified, it's been damaged by humans in many, many different ways. The most significant of course, being the installation of the four dams on the lower Snake River. Essentially the dams create a situation in the river system that is not natural. There are large reservoirs that build up behind the dams that create a lot of methane which is a greenhouse gas, which obviously is lending to the climate change issues that we're seeing. The whales need salmon throughout their entire range, throughout the entire year, especially in the winter and early spring when the whales loop around the mouth of the Columbia Basin – a disproportionate amount of time than what would be expected by chance. Most likely those whales have a very deep long history or knowledge of foraging in these waters. These are traditions that are passed down from grandmothers to mothers and mothers to daughters within the Southern Resident killer whale clan. So, these are areas that the whales used to be able to go and get a lot of food and it's just not there now. Having a healthy and restored Snake River means that the salmon, especially the wild stocks of Chinook salmon, can more easily make it out of the river as small smolts and then back to the river, back up past the dams and into an area where they need to spawn. Removing the dams will create a restored habitat which will allow the river to support a higher number of salmon, and in a healthy way.

 4. Can you explain Southern Resident orcas’ family bonds?

gallery 01 2017 orca pod aerial

So we say that there's one clan, it’s a clan that's connected by acoustics so they essentially speak the same language. Genetically, we now know that they are related to each other. So within the overall umbrella of the Southern Resident killer whale clan, there are three pods: J pod, K pod, and L pod. Of the three pods, J pod has been the most resident of the Resident killer whales in the San Juan Islands and the Southern Canadian Gulf Islands. That being said, K pod and L pod also, historically, used the Salish Sea quite a bit. K pod and L pod are also the two pods that in the fall and winter exit this area and go south, past the Columbia River all the way down to California. K pod ranges as far south as Point Reyes, California, while L pod travels as far as Monterey, California. J pod has never really been seen as far south as the mouth of the Columbia River, which is interesting. But this is a way for the whole community, the whole population to do what's called Habitat Partitioning –splitting up so that they're not in competition with each other for limited prey. And that's what happens during that time of the year (fall, winter, and early spring) – since their prey is just more patchy. It probably always has been, but it's even more so now because of overfishing (the way we manage fisheries – where and when and how we manage offshore fishing), coupled with issues related to the river habitat just not being as conducive to a thriving population of wild Chinook salmon, which is what the whales are co-evolved to be seeking out.

And it's been a challenging few decades for the Southern Residents because we believe that for hundreds of thousands of years, they have been eating salmon along the Pacific coast in abundance, and really what amounts to the blink of an eye, we humans have decimated their prey base and so restoring rivers, whenever possible, and especially large river restoration projects, like the Snake River dam removals, those are going to be the projects that have the best bang for the buck. We're going to be able to increase the amount of salmon available to the Southern Residents considerably once those dams come down.

5. This year, we heard both good and bad news for the Southern Resident orcas. Bad news included, earlier this year, two miscarriages from the J Pod and more recently, K44, an 11-year-old male, has not been seen over the past few months, and unfortunately, it seems that he may have passed away. Why do orcas have a high rate of reproductive loss? How does the death of a family member impact the rest of the orca pod? 


We believe based on fecal sample analysis the biggest cause of the deaths in the Southern Resident population is the lack of prey—that’s mostly Chinook salmon. At different times of the year, Southern Residents’ diet is roughly 90% Chinook salmon, but also other species of salmon like coho and chum. We don't have any evidence to suggest that they ever eat Pink Salmon, but they do occasionally eat some steelhead. They also get small numbers of other fish like rockfish, lingcod, even some skates – one sample showed that they were eating skates, which is an Elasmobranchii in the shark family (it's similar to a stingray). So they do branch out a little bit to other fish species, but they only eat fish. They don't eat any marine mammals, unfortunately, because there's a lot of marine mammals that they could prey on.

The loss of even one member of the population is devastating because there are so few Southern Resident killer whales. We only have probably 73 individuals left. Every single member matters, essentially for different reasons. We know also from our fecal studies, that almost 70% of the females in this population who get pregnant are not able to bring the calf to bear, meaning the calf dies in their uterus and hopefully is miscarried and doesn't kill them in the process, or the baby is born and dies right away. The females that make up the 69.8% who are losing their calves are nutritionally deprived. We know that those are the ones that they're essentially just not getting enough to eat to successfully birth their offspring. These are very clear reasons to say that prey is the biggest problem.

Of course, contaminants in the environment are also a problem, as well as vessels – both the associated noise and just the physical presence of vessels. But out of all three of these main identified threats, the lack of prey is by far the biggest because when they're not getting enough to eat, they're more susceptible to metabolizing their fat stores (releasing those toxicants or those chemicals from their fat stores), which circulates through their body making them immune compromised. It makes it harder to forage – imagine if you were starving and metabolizing your fat stores was releasing toxicants into your system. This is happening with the whales, but on a regular basis. They're often in some stage of starvation. So back to the question about why one death matters, it's really just a numbers game and you know, it can be thought of as simply as that. Every member is a vital member of the population and when we lose one of them, it's just ratcheting down with the population number more and more and more.

 6. What can Members of Congress, policymakers, salmon and orca advocates, and citizens do to help orcas now?

orca chinook

The most important thing to do is to really be looking at this as a full picture. It's not just one thing that needs to happen. We need to remove dams like the four Snake River dams. We need to continue to look at other river systems that would have produced salmon in the past and look to find ways to recover those rivers. Restoring the habitat in areas where the river system is fairly pristine to protect it in a way so that it can't be degraded. We need to be looking at harvest as well, when and where and how we're fishing for salmon. We have to have a better idea of the salmon that is being caught in other fisheries, that end up yielding a lot of what's called bycatch–accidentally caught Chinook salmon in other fisheries–that’s a big problem. And then, being more aware of how we're treating the environment in all aspects. Making sure that we're not putting toxiants into the marine realm, which means being careful about how we're managing agriculture because in so many cases, we do not have enough buffer between agricultural lands and rivers/streams, and so everything that happens on the land ends up in the river, which ends up in the ocean, which ultimately means that it ends up in the food web and not only into the whales, but then to humans that are consuming that food as well.

The decline of salmon is a big problem for tribes, who rely on fish or other species in the marine realm for not only their food, their protein but also for their ceremonies. And it's important for us to be mindful of that and recover these salmon, for the salmon sake, for the human sake–humans that rely on the salmon– and of course, for the Southern Resident killer whales, who have lived in these waters and have been eating Pacific salmon for hundreds of thousands of years.


Martha Bio picMartha Campos is the Hot Water Report Coordinator with Save Our wild Salmon this summer while she resides on Kizh/Tongva ancestral lands in California. Martha holds a BA from the University of California, Davis in Native American Studies (and two minors: Environmental Policy, Analysis, and Planning and Climate Science and Policy) and is a queer, nonbinary person of color with ancestral roots in Mexico.



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