Lower Snake River dams eyed in orca recovery

Lower Snake River dams eyed in orca recovery
A task force created by Governor Jay Inslee met in Wenatchee to discuss possible ways to aid the Southern Resident killer whale population. The public comment period was dominated by calls to dismantle four dams on the lower Snake River to help endangered salmon species that are part of the whale’s diet. Photo: Marine Mammal Commission

A new task force created by Governor Jay Inslee is looking at ways to aid Southern Resident killer whale recovery. A recent meeting in Wenatchee outlined the many proposals that the task force may submit to Inslee as part of a holistic strategy, including breaching the lower Snake River dams as a way to improve salmon populations such as Chinook that the whales eat. A webinar on the topic is planned for the task force, though federal studies say it’s an unnecessary move.

Created in March via executive order, the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force is composed of members from recreational fishing and environmental organizations, industry groups, tribes, and state and federal agencies. Its plan is to create long-term recommendations on how to improve the Southern Resident killer whale population; the only killer whale population listed under the Endangered Species Act by NOAA Fisheries. In 2011, the federal agency banned vessels from approaching killer whale closer than 200 yards or remaining in their path.

According to the Center for Whale Research, there are currently 75 Southern Resident killer whales. That number has fluctuated since the 1970s, when there were around 71; in 1995, there were 98. The population drop is in part due to lost pregnancies, a plight emphasized in recent weeks by the loss of an infant calf whose mother has refused to let it go.

A 2014 NOAA Fisheries report identified three primary threats to the Southern Resident killer whale population.

  • Insufficient salmon population;
  • Pollution and chemical contaminants; and
  • Vessel traffic and noise.

The task force’s Aug. 7 meeting examined a wide range of possible recommendations on how to address those challenges, including new regulations related to water quality standards, catch-and-release policy, no-wake rules for boats under certain circumstances and increased fish hatchery production.

However, dominating the public comment period were impassioned calls to breach the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams overseen by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the federal Bureau of Reclamation. None of those agencies are represented on the task force.

The lower Snake River provides 7.1 percent of the electricity produced in the state, enough energy for more than 800,000 average homes.

Yet, critics say that despite millions spent on improving fish passages they are still an insurmountable barrier to endangered salmon species that pass through them and provide food for killer whales. Jerry White with the Spokane Riverkeeper told the task force that “in my opinion, the jury is in. Those need to go.”

Save Our Salmon Coalition Executive Director Joseph Bogaard told the task force that “to save orcas from extinction we can’t accept the status that we’ve been used to. We really have to stretch ourselves and take some big steps forward.”

“The tragedy must be an opportunity too, and that’s the opportunity,” he added. “The opportunity has to be to move the ball forward…so that this story doesn’t repeat itself.”

However, those in favor of preserving the dams say it would have a detrimental impact to agriculture and farming, in addition to local tourism. It would also prevent farmers from using less expensive means of transporting goods via river barges.

According to USACE, barges on the inland Columbia Snake River System move each year approximately 10 million tons of cargo worth more than $3 billion, though Save Our Wild Salmon disputes this figure. The system is also used to move 40 percent of the country’s wheat production.

The U.S. House recently voted on a resolution to protect the four dams from breaching until 2022; it has yet to be voted on by the U.S. Senate. Despite some claims made, Matt Rabe, an USACE Public Affairs Director, told Lens in an email that “the Corps is required to seek congressional authorization and appropriations for an activity that eliminates purposes Congress had previously authorized, such as carrying out dam breaching.”

He wrote further: “To implement any action outside our current authority that includes significant modifications to the structures or operation of completed projects, the Corps must prepare the appropriate documentation of the impacts of changes to the authorization, costs of implementation, environmental, social, and economic analysis, regulatory permits or other statutory requirements, and engineering designs.”

In addition to the cost of dismantling the dams – BPA estimates the total bill at over $1 billion – it’s not necessary to increase salmon stock or the Southern Resident killer whales. That was the conclusion of a NOAA biological opinion and its recovery plans.

Instead, the federal agency concluded that “hatchery production of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake systems more than offsets any losses of salmon from the killer whale prey base caused by the dams” and breaching the dams would “result in only a marginal change in the total salmon available to the killer whales.”

The lower Snake River dams are already under scrutiny as part of 2016 federal court ruling insisting that breaching them be considered as part of a new environmental impact statement (EIS) analysis under the 2014 biological opinion that governs the 14 Columbia River basin dams.  Extra water was spilled over the lower Snake and lower Columbia River dams earlier this year as the result of a recent Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling. The agencies are currently in the process of developing alternatives for evaluation. A final EIS is expected by 2021.

The state task force is scheduled to submit a draft report and recommendations to Inslee by Oct. 1, with a final report due Nov. 1. An update report is due Oct. 1, 2019.

The state task force meets next Aug. 28 at the Swinomish Casino and Lodge in Anacortes.

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