Editorial: Fixing salmon culverts is more important than a second dam-breaching study

Opinion: Save the Puget Sound orca! Keep the lower Snake River dams

Everything you need to know about the debate over the lower Snake River dams and how they relate to saving orca and salmon in 90 seconds.
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Everything you need to know about the debate over the lower Snake River dams and how they relate to saving orca and salmon in 90 seconds.

Gov. Jay Inslee approved spending $750,000 for a Snake River dam task force, ignoring last-minute pleas by members of Congress, trade unions, port districts, and business, power and farm groups who wanted a veto.

Considering it was the governor who initially recommended studying the implications of removing the dams, we figured there was no chance he would veto the plan if the Legislature put it in the state budget.

Nevertheless, we appreciate the efforts of Republican U.S. Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who wrote to Inslee opposing this divisive expenditure.

They called it a “waste of taxpayer dollars” and said, “Instead of studying the removal of our federal dams, these state dollars could have been used to fund salmon recovery programs that directly endanger salmon species … we will continue to defend the dams from these misguided, state-led breaching efforts.”

As it happens, Inslee wasn’t happy with the Legislature’s anemic $100 million allotted this session for culvert repair and replacement, calling it “unacceptable.”

He ordered the Washington State Department of Transportation to shift $175 million from several highway projects to the culvert program, calling the repairs an emergency.

Salmon in the Pacific Northwest have been brought to the edge of extinction, and conservationists argue hydroelectric dams along the Snake and Columbia Rivers are a major obstacle blocking salmon migration.

It’s estimated that half the 2,000 culverts statewide are too small or too damaged to allow salmon and other fish to pass through them. The state is under a court order to fix them.

Yet the Legislature decided to underfund culvert repairs — which would directly improve fish runs — while it gave money for a dam study that isn’t necessary.

It’s exasperating.

Breaching the lower Snake River dams has been studied ad nauseam.

The most recent studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2016 and 2018 concluded that breaching the dams only would have a marginal impact on the salmon population.

In addition, breaching the dams is already being considered in a federal environmental study. That research was started in 2016 and the report is set to be ready by September 2020.

There is no way a study by the state task force will be as comprehensive as the one conducted at the federal level.

But here we are.

We’ve said before we think this study is being used as a way for anti-dam groups to try and justify their removal.

While the task force is supposed to be a “neutral party,” our concern is that it will be far from impartial and will be stacked against Eastern Washington interests.

Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers grills Gov. Inslee about the push to remove the lower Snake River dams.

It’s the west-side Democrats and some environmental groups pushing for it, after all.

They don’t agree with the results of studies already conducted on the issue, and that’s why they want another one in the hopes they can get results they like.

Groups who opposed the study during the legislative session will have to continue to be watchful as this new task force is set up.

In addition to Newhouse and McMorris Rodgers, thirty-three organizations sent Inslee a last-ditch letter objecting to the study. These groups included the Port of Pasco, Port of Benton, Tri-Cities Grain, Benton Rural Electric Authority, Washington Farm Bureau, Pasco Chamber of Commerce and Association of Washington Business.

And separate letters were sent by the Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council and the International Union of Operating Engineers, also pushing for a veto.

But their requests failed. So the struggle continues to protect our agricultural economy and our reliable power supply.

We will have to stay vigilant.