As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USAE), U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) continue work on a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) affecting the lower Snake River dams to be released next year, Washington state is preparing a new stakeholder process examining whether or not those dams should be breached to improve salmon and orca recovery. However – state officials at a Sept. 9 meeting of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force emphasized the narrow objective of the process and the final report that will be submitted to Inslee and the state legislature in February.
“The goal is not to develop the mitigation option here,” state Office of Financial Management Senior Budget Assistant Jim Cahill said. “We’re trying to gather information on what stakeholders and communities and others feel are important things that we need to consider, or possible mitigation options. We can’t go out of the kind of the scope of our charge.”
During this year’s legislative session, state lawmakers approved $750,000 in the 2019-21 budget for a stakeholder process to continue ongoing discussions over whether the four lower Snake River dams should be breached to aid salmon and killer whale recovery. The move was advocated last year by the task force as part its recommendations to improve the dwindling orca population.
At the Sept. 9 task force meeting, San Juan County Commissioner Jamie Stephens said: “there are specific questions that I think need to be answered on both sides – for the advocates of tearing down the dams as well as Bonneville Power trying to save the dams.”
Washington Policy Center Environmental Director Todd Meyers told Lens that “the fundamental problem with this whole study is that it’s $700,000 that will do literally nothing for a single salmon or orca. It’s the Burning Man for environmental activists. It’s a chance to dress up.”
The final report sent to Inslee is intended to help him decide what recommendation to submit as part of the EIS process. Meanwhile, NOAA Fisheries has already confirmed that its new analysis for the EIS will not advocate for breaching the dams.
“It is a discussion that the Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA Fisheries are doing in a very detailed and scientific way right now,” Myers said. “What is the governor going to hear that they aren’t going to examine?”
Some advocates for removing the dams point to a 2002 USACE report on juvenile salmon migration which concluded that breaching would provide “the highest probability of meeting the survival and recovery criteria” for the salmon out of the alternative options included in the study. However, the report noted that the benefits for salmon would be a “slightly reduced” risk of extinction for spring/summer Chinook and a “moderately reduced” risk of extinction for fall Chinook and Steelhead.
The report also noted that it did not address whether removing the dams was necessary. “The bottom line is that no single alternative stands out as the ‘silver bullet’ for listed stocks.”
A 2000 biological opinion by NOAA Fisheries also found that “breaching the four lower Snake River dams would provide more certainty of long-term survival and recovery than would other measures,” though it noted that the “breaching is not essential to implementation of the initial actions called for in the Reasonable and Prudent Alternative (RPA).”
NOAA Fisheries officials have previously told Lens that while the agency’s previous studies have offered “some degree of support” for removing the dams, none have concluded it’s necessary for salmon recovery.
One of the issues the process aims to address are the potential economic consequences of removing the dams. Their vital role in shipping inland produce was underscored by the recent, unexpected closure of the Bonneville Lock by USAE that froze barging on the river. In addition to generating hydropower, the Bonneville dam is the first of eight in the 465-mile Columbia Snake River System that barges use to move agricultural products to market.
According to the Washington Grain Commission, in 2014 alone the system barged 4.4 million tons of cargo that would have otherwise required 43,600 rail cars or 167,000 semi-trucks to move. According to the USAE, the system moves around 10 million tons and $3 billion worth of cargo each year.
To facilitate the forums for local, state, federal and tribal stakeholders, the state has hired Ross Strategic, Kramer Consulting, White Bluffs Consulting and Anchor QEA. Public workshops are tentatively planned for December, with possible venues in Vancouver and the Tri-Cities.