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A southern resident killer whale breaches in Haro Strait just off San Juan Island's west side, with Mount Baker in the background. 

Proposals to breach the four Lower Snake River dams have found fresh support in orca advocates who want the dams removed to restore a “critical” food source for Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales.

What do the dams have to do with the orcas, which live hundreds of miles from the Snake River? To put it simply, the dams affect chinook salmon runs, a winter food source for the starving orcas.

It’s a breath of new life for a decades-long debate on whether to remove the dams — a decision that could dramatically impact the local port and power industries in Cowlitz County.

“Without the Snake River dams, you don’t have the peaking power capability to back up wind and solar. And you don’t have the ability for inland empire farmers to get their product to market at a price that can be sold internationally,” said Rob Rich, vice president of marine services for Shaver Transportation, a regional tug and barge company that hauls commodities on the Snake and Columbia rivers.

Lower Snake River Dams map

Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite are the four dams advocates hope to see breached. 

Gov. Jay Inslee’s Orca Recovery Task Force wants dam-breaching brought into the killer whale conversation with a $750,000 “stakeholder forum,” which may or may not be approved as the Legislature winds down work on the state budget.

Conservationists and business industries are almost as split over the forum as they are about the dams.

On one side, conservationists back proposals to remove the dams to assist Chinook salmon runs, but Islee’s Orca Recovery Task Force recognizes the need to account for any consequence of dam removal, said Stephanie Solien, co-chair of the the group.

“There’s just no doubt about it: The dams have had a huge impact, and we really felt that it needs to be looked at as a possible solution. But we can’t do that until people come to the table and communities that rely on the dams have a chance to have their voices heard,” Solien said.

EGT grain terminal

The barge in the foreground of this photo unloads wheat into the Export Grain Terminal, known as the EGT, at its facility at the Port of Longview. Barges like this use the Columbia/Snake River system to move nearly 10 percent of all U.S. wheat exports each year. 

On the opposing side, business and industry officials say the dams provide huge benefits to the Northwest economy through port cargo transportation and clean energy, and removing them could hurt the industries that rely on the river. Plus, these groups contend that the public has had ample opportunity to be involved with forums at the federal level.

“All of these things folks have been asking for in the last couple of months, like a dam-breaching impacts forum, is already being done by the federal agencies (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation), and their process includes the states and the tribes — and it will have the opportunity for citizens to provide our public comment,” said Kristen Meira, executive director of Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA), a coalition of ports, businesses and other public agencies.

Dwindling salmon populations

The movement to remove the dams dates back to at least 1991, when Snake River sockeye salmon were listed under the Endangered Species Act. Since then, 12 other salmon species have been added to the list, including three that are native to the Columbia/Snake River Basin.

Salmon sources

Salmon advocates, including Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, point to the dams as one of the leading causes for the salmon’s decline. They turned the Snake and Columbia rivers into a series of slack, warm water pools that exhaust young salmon’s energy on their way to the ocean, Bogaard said.

“As a result, if they get to the ocean alive, they are severely depleted of nutrition and energy. … They are much less likely to survive, and they come back at lower levels,” he said.

The Columbia/Snake River Basin was “once the most productive salmon landscape on the planet,” producing 10 million to 20 million returning adults annually, Bogaard said. Last year, just more than 175,000 spring chinook returned from the ocean, according to a 2019 TAC fish run forecast.

Fewer fish mean less food for the orca, whose diets consist primarily of Chinook. And less food means a lower survival rate. Puget Sound’s Southern Resident orca population, once numbering 200, now is 74, a 30-year low. Many other factors, such as pollution, vessel noise and boat-caused injuries are also thought to be involved in their decline.

“There’s a number of causes of decline for orca, but the most important and pressing one is that we need to get them more food,” Bogaard said.

Snake River Chinook are not the orcas’ only food. They also eat Chinook originating from rivers in Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia and the Fraser River in Canada, among other rivers. But Snake River Chinook are among the 10 most important food stocks for orcas, according to NOAA Fisheries. And they are especially important in the winter months, when food sources are more scarce and some orca pods are spending time near the mouth of the Columbia River where spring Chinook are returning.

Bogaard said removing the dams is not a “silver bullet,” but it is a “critical step” in helping the salmon and orca.

Time and Space orca map

This map shows the areas where the three Southern Resident orca pods (J-pod, K-pod and L-pod) frequent during fall, winter and spring months. All three pods move to the Salish Sea, which includes Puget Sound, in the summer. K-pod and L-pod spend a portion of the winter along the Washington coast near the mouth of the Columbia River, where they're likely to feed on spring chinook returning to the Columbia and Snake rivers. 

The opposing side, though, argues that healthy salmon populations can coexist with the dams, thanks to investments to make the structures more fish friendly. Adding safe fish passageways and spilling more water over the dams have increased the survival rate of juvenile chinook to more than 90 percent — without the need to remove the dams completely, said Meira, the PNWA director.

Dams necessary for local ports

The shipping locks that are part of the lower Snake River dams — and which make the river navigable by barge — mean the river is an “important gateway” for U.S. wheat and forest projects, according to Meira’s organization. In 2017, more than 3.5 million tons of cargo was barged along the waterway. That’s the equivalent of 244 four-barge tows. Much of that cargo goes to the local grain terminals at the port of Kalama and Longview.

It would more than 135,000 semi-trucks or 35,000 rail cars to move the same amount of goods. And those alternative modes of transportation are less fuel efficient, have higher emissions and would congest roads and railways, according to PNWA.

The Port of Longview opposes dam removal for this very reason.

“The benefit of barging is that it takes trains and trucks off the road. It’s also more environmentally friendly,” said port spokeswoman Ashley Helenberg. “If one of the efforts is to improve the environment, it would be a counterproductive argument to place that cargo on rails or in trucks.”

Barging also keeps the price for the goods — especially wheat — competitive on the international market, said Rob Rich of Shaver Transportation. That’s hugely important for families who work in river-based transportation and wheat farming, he said.

“All of the wheat the comes down the river by barge is from the inland empire. … It’s from our local farmers,” Rich said. “The Snake River accounts for nearly 10 percent of all United States wheat that is exported … and there’s a reason it’s shipped by barge. You can’t ship it by rail or truck and compete in the international market.”

Without the dams, barge transport is “not possible at all,” Meira said. All the cargo moved on the river would need to be shipped another way.

Rich added that “people who want the dams removed say you could truck it or rail it, but there is not possible way for us to do that,” and keep prices competitive.

Clean, renewable energy

The dams are also an important piece of the Northwest’s energy industry. Those four structures — the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams — account for about 10 to 15 percent of the total megawatts generated by the 31-dam Columbia hydropower system.

Cowlitz PUD General Manager Steve Kern said there is no immediate replacement for that clean energy source. Solar and wind technologies are not yet “adequate or reliable” enough to meet Northwest power needs, he said, and other replacements might require burning coal and gas.

It could also mean an increase in consumer electric rates as the PUD and other energy groups invest in alternative sources for power to meet the region’s growing demand for energy.

“(The dams) are not a resource we should throw away without carefully looking at the benefits,” Kern said.

A multimillion dollar federal study investigating the dam’s effects on river wildlife is currently underway. That study will look at strategies for salmon recovery while also considering the effect of those plans on different river and dam “user groups,” like ports and utility districts, said Matt Rabe, spokesman with the Army Corps of Engineers in Portland. A draft of the study should be released early in 2020, and a final decision is slated for September of that year.

No species recovery

Federal, state and local agencies have spent billions of dollars trying to recovery salmon runs. Despite that expenditure, the runs still are struggling. Not a single one of the endangered runs has recovered adequately enough to be taken off the endangered species list, said Bogaard, the salmon advocate.

“What we’ve been doing a long time has cost a tremendous amount of money, and it hasn’t worked. If we are going to comply with the law and we are going to save these species, we will have to do things differently,” he said.

His proposal is to bring dam removal back to the “center of the conversation.”

Bogaard attended a conference in Idaho where legislators, farmers, power industry officials and other communities did just that, marking a “pretty significant pivot point” in the debate, he said. Even Republican legislators from Idaho showed their support for “taking a closer look at … restoring the Snake River,” Bogaard said.

Solien, the chochair for Gov. Inslee’s Orca Task Force, agreed that interest groups can no longer “stay in our own silos and keep fighting and suing each other.” Instead, they need to create a plan that addresses the needs of the Washington communities, should the federal government decide to breach the dams, she said.

But Meira said that the forum is “a bit of a head scratcher” because it “won’t result in anything that is as actionable as what the federal agencies are doing.” Kern and Rich added that they don’t think it’s worth investing even more taxpayer dollars to replicate the current federal study.

However, despite their opposition to funding the forum, port and power officials said they still want a seat at the table should it happen.

“We want to ensure all interests are represented and a balanced solution is reached. … We definitely want to be part of the conversation,” Helenberg said.

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