Opinion: Save the Puget Sound orca! Keep the lower Snake River dams
State legislators looking to trim the budget this session can save $750,000 straight off if they don’t fund a proposed Snake River dams task force.
Such a group is not needed, and giving it the green light would be a shameful waste of money. We suggest our regional lawmakers keep an eye out for this unnecessary proposal, and sink it if it surfaces.
When Gov. Jay Inslee proposed his state budget last year, he included $1.1 billion to help save the declining orca pod in Puget Sound.
That’s all well and good, but tucked in that plan is $750,000 so a committee can study the effects to Eastern Washington if the lower Snake River dams are breached.
A new state committee is not going to be able to compete with the federal team that has been studying this same issue since September 2016, so trying to duplicate the effort is absurd.
Representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration recently met with the Tri-City Herald editorial board and noted an updated Environmental Impact Statement on the dams will be ready a year ahead of schedule because of an executive order from the White House.
That means instead of waiting until 2021 for the comprehensive report, it will be ready in September of 2020. That’s just 19 months from now, so why fund a state group that couldn’t possibly do as thorough a job in the same amount of time?
Matt Rabe, a spokesman for the Corps’ Northwest division at Portland, said there will be a 45-day comment period beginning when the draft EIS is released. It would be a better use of people’s time to weigh in on the federal plan instead of trying to re-create something similar at the state level.
The Snake River dams are critical to the economy of Eastern Washington and the Northwest. They play an important role in providing irrigation, hydropower and navigation.
Community leaders note that barging on the inland Columbia Snake River system moves, on average, about 9 million tons of cargo valued at more than $3 billion each year. The dams are part of the lifeblood of the region.
But anti-dam activists want to see them gone, and the plight of the Puget Sound orcas are fueling their efforts.
Sadly, the whales have been in decline for years, but the gut-wrenching image last summer of a mother orca carrying her dead calf on her head in Puget Sound created a new sense of urgency.
Environmental groups are pushing hard to breach the Snake River dams because they believe it will significantly boost Chinook salmon – the primary food source for the Puget Sound orcas — and solve the problem.
Our concern is there are other contributing factors harming the whales – such as pollution, predators and boat noise – and a singular focus on breaching the Snake River dams puts these issues on the back burner when they should be up front.
In addition, studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries in 2016 and 2018 show breaching the dams only would have a marginal impact on salmon population. NOAA scientists also have said fish survival levels on the Columbia and Snake rivers are similar to those at undammed rivers like the Fraser River in British Columbia.
Yet many environmental groups do not want to believe government reports, so the battle continues.
One of the challenges is the debate pits emotion against science, and let’s face it, it is much easier to rally around emotion than dry, complicated data.
But people should be able to understand wasting money, and funding a Snake River dam study at the state level when the federal government is conducting a similar, yet more thorough report, does not make sense.
Instead of spending $750,000 on a duplicate effort, let’s put that money toward salmon recovery efforts that could really make a difference.