A northern resident orca head bobbing out of the water in Canada's Blackfish Sound off of Hanson Island on Aug. 22, 2018. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times/TNS)

Conservationists, industry officials and other Snake River “stakeholders” will bring dam breaching to the center of the orca recovery conversation with a $750,000 forum, which received funding in the state Legislature’s budget proposal last weekend.

Proposals to remove the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Lower Granite and Little Goose dams on the Lower Snake River are well-backed by conservationists, who say the move would help restore dwindling salmon and orca populations. However, regional commerce and power industries that rely on the dams have historically opposed the idea. Those opponents say removing the dams would make it impossible to move cargo along the Snake River, and it would reduce the amount of clean energy available in the region.

Inslee’s task force recommended the forum last fall as a way to “proactively identify and detail” a plan for several communities that use the river, should the federal government decide to remove those dams, according to a press release by several fish and orca advocacy groups.

“For decades, our elected officials have avoided the difficult conversations we need to have about the lower Snake River dams and their impact on salmon and orcas,” said Robb Krehbiel, Northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife and member of the Southern Resident Orca Task Force. “Bringing people together to work collaboratively on solutions that help salmon, orca and our communities is the right next step.”

According to state budget documents, the $750,000 allocation will be split evenly over the next two years, with $375,000 available in 2020 and 2021. The money will be used to contract a “neutral third party” to organize and moderate the conversation.

When the state-funded forum was first proposed, some groups said it would duplicate a federal environmental impact study by the Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Association and the Bureau of Reclamation. But now that the forum has funding, ports and power officials said they want to be included in the discussion.

“It will be critical, in our opinion, for a Columbia River port to be represented,” said Port of Longview spokeswoman Ashley Helenberg. “We understand this is an issue that’s central to the orcas in Puget Sound, but this will directly impact shipping and navigation on the Columbia River, so a port in our area needs to be at the table.”

“We hope that the commodity owners are at the table as well: the grain growers and the tug companies,” she added. Helenberg said the port wants to ensure that the conversation is “based in fact and science” and is not a duplication of the federal study. Forum supporters like salmon fisherman Amy Grondin said their discussion will “compliment” the federal study by allowing the groups to make an “action plan regardless of what the government decides — dams in or dams out.” Grondin, who co-owns Duna Fisheries in Port Townsend, said she looks forward to “participating in this dialogue.”

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