The state Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force created by Governor Jay Inslee has released a list of 36 recommendations on how to aid orca recovery. Among them is to further examine the possibility of removing the lower Snake River dams to improve chinook salmon populations.
According to the task force report, the discussion should “include consideration of services provided by the dams, potential biological benefits/impacts to Chinook and Southern Resident orcas, as well as other costs and uncertainties related to the question of breaching or retaining the lower Snake River dams.”
The move is opposed by a variety of stakeholders as well as the U.S. House of Representatives, which in April voted in favor of a resolution to protect the dams until 2022; the Senate has yet to vote on the bill. Congressional approval would be needed before breaching the dams.
Meanwhile, a federal judge has ordered that the multiple agencies operating the dams must evaluate breaching them as part of a new environmental impact statement (EIS) analysis expected to be completed in 2021.
Other task force recommendations related to Chinook salmon recovery include habitat restoration, fish barrier removal projects, increasing its diet supply and increasing the spillage over hydroelectric dams from 115 to 125 percent. A court order earlier this year stipulated further spillage, though it was more than the recommended levels made by NOAA Fisheries.
More chinook on the Snake River may also have limited effect on the Southern Resident orca population. A 2010 study found that in a four-year period (2004-2008) nearly all chinook salmon consumed by killer whales originated from the Fraser River in British Columbia. A 2017 study by the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences revealed that seals share some blame for the decreased food supply for orca; between 1970-2015, there was a 68 percent increase in the amount of salmon consumed by seals. In 2015, seals ate twice as many salmon as orca.
Aside from the practical arguments for dismantling the dams, opponents have also touted the economic benefits those dams provide to eastern Washington. That includes outdoor tourism opportunities and the ability to barge products through the inland Columbia Snake River System. The system is used to move 40 percent of the country’s wheat production.
Port of Pasco Executive Director Randy Hayden recently told Lens that while their port doesn’t involve much barging, breaching the dams would “be a huge loss for a lot of our ag (agricultural) communities, power and irrigation.”
Aside from the inability to barge and effectively shutting down the Port of Lewiston, the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association estimates that removing the dams would negatively affect 350,000 acres of private sector agricultural lands. The dams also provide carbon-free energy for roughly 800,000 average households that, according to Forbes, if eliminated would nullify carbon reduction from the Centralia coal plant scheduled for closure in 2025.
While some argued that barging could be replaced by trucking or rail, Hayden says neither option is viable. “Economically it just doesn’t work. There’s not enough capacity in trucking or rail. Trucking is under huge demand. There aren’t enough truckers that would be needed.”
“One of our concern is if it’s ok to take out Snake River dams, what’s to stop lowering pools behind the Columbia River dams?” he added. “You have the same argument you hear with the Snake River dams. We kind of lump them together because we don’t think people pushing for Snake River dam removal would stop there.”
There’s also the price tag associated with removing them; the Bonneville Power Administration estimates it would cost $2.6 billion. That doesn’t include the $1.8 billion already spent by the Army Corps of Engineers on fish passage improvements for both Snake and Columbia river dams between 2001 and 2013.
Of the 36 task force recommendations, 10 of them would require legislative authorization. That includes ramped up enforcement by relevant state agencies of laws protecting habitats, establishing a “go-slow zone” restricting boat speeds to seven knots within half a nautical mile of orcas and increasing the minimum distance between a boat and orca to 400 yards.
One recommendation would suspend viewing of the Southern Resident orcas for a 3-5 year period.