What if dams are torn down to save orcas? Inslee wants to spend $750,000 to find out

Gov. Jay Inslee wants to spend $750,000 on a task force to look at impacts should the four lower Snake River dams be torn down someday.

The spending would be part of $1.1 billion that the governor included in his list of budget priorities for 2019-21 to help save the iconic orcas off the Washington state coast. He released a proposed spending list of $54.5 billion on Thursday.

“We are undertaking a herculean effort to save these iconic creatures,” Inslee said in a statement. “It will take action at every level of the environment across our entire state.”

The proposal to investigate the effects of tearing down four dams from Ice Harbor near the Tri-Cities upriver to Lower Granite near Pomeroy drew criticism from congressional Republicans representing Eastern Washington.

“The people of Eastern Washington whose livelihoods depend on these dams should not be collateral damage for anyone’s presidential ambitions,” said Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers in a joint statement.

Inslee is considering running for president.

Orcas Genome Map.JPG
An endangered female orca leaps from the water while breaching in Puget Sound west of Seattle, Wash. Northwest killer whales rely on chinook salmon for food. AP File

The governor of Washington does not have the authority to breach federal dams on the lower Snake River, Newhouse and McMorris Rodgers said. That authority is reserved for Congress, they said.

Breaching the dams is out of the question, and spending state taxpayer money to consider is would be wasteful, they said.

Inslee’s state spending proposals aligned with recommendations made this fall by the Southern Resident Orca Task Force he created to develop a long-term plan for recovering killer whales.

What has historically been a healthy population of 200 Washington resident killer whales has dwindled to just 74 orcas, according to the governor’s office.

The environmental conditions that threaten their survival took generations to create and will take a grand, coordinated effort to reverse, according to information from the governor’s office.

The decline of the state’s orca population has been blamed on toxins in the water, noise from boats and lack of food.

The Northwest’s chinook salmon are the killer whale’s primary source of food.

An orca whale leaps out of the water near a whale watching boat in 2015. Elaine Thompson AP file

The governor’s task force stopped short of calling for tearing down the dams, instead calling for a new task force to work with those who would be impacted by the loss of the dams if they were breached or torn down in an effort to increase chinook.

Breaching the dams is being considered in an environmental study ordered by a federal judge and developing a better understanding of the environmental, economic and social impacts of the dam will help the state provide input to the federal review, according to information from Inslee’s office.

His staff noted that dams support irrigation, public water availability, recreation, navigation, energy and fish hatcheries.

The governor’s proposal also included $580,000 to be used toward increasing the amount of water spilled over dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers with a goal of benefiting salmon.

More spill could help cool river water for salmon and help speed smolts on their way to the ocean, say those who support increased spill.

However, Northwest RiverPartners, a group that includes farmers, utilities, ports and businesses, says increasing spill can kill young fish. It increases levels of gas in the water that can give fish symptoms similar to human divers who get the bends.

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Water spilled over the dams also is not available to produce inexpensive electricity.

Inslee’s proposal would have other direct effects on Western Washington.

He is calling for a three-year temporary suspension on all commercial whale watching of resident orcas. He would expand the distance boats must maintain from the orcas to quiet the waters near the killer whales.

One of the most costly parts of his plan would be correcting fish passage barriers on state highways at a cost of nearly $300 million. The state is under a court order to repair roads that have damaged salmon habitats.

Read more about the governor’s proposal at bit.ly/OrcaProposal.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.