Study Breaching Snake River Dams
by Joel Connelly
The late Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus coined a saying to describe
the plight of the salmon: "Idaho: Has habitat, needs fish."
Gov. Jay Inslee is going "all in" to save the imperiled Southern Resident population of orca whales, including a controversial proposal to "explore breaching of Snake River dams" to restore chinook salmon populations on which killer whales feed.
"Our Washington State orcas are being pushed to the edge of eternal silence," Inslee told a budget briefing in Olympia.
He is proposing a whale of a survival package.
The Governor embraced recent recommendations of a tax force, proposing to spend $1.1 billion on projects that will support whale recovery -- particularly protection and restoration of salmon habit -- and embracing temporary suspension of whale watching.
Orca recovery has stirred Inslee.
"When we see the sun reflect off their black backs, we rejoice," he said Thursday. Humans "share much" with orcas, he added, including body temperature, heart beat and family life. "The orcas are tied to people all around the world, not just Washington."
Environmental groups have long suggested removal of four Army Corps of Engineers dams on the lower Snake River, which are a major obstacle to salmon reaching -- and leaving -- spawning habitat of Idaho's famed, wild Salmon River.
The late Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus coined a saying to describe the plight of the salmon: "Idaho: Has habitat, needs fish."
But the dams have made inland cities of Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Washington, into barge ports and been a boon to agribusiness.
"We commit to do everything in our power to save our dams," U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., who represent Eastern Washington, said in a statement.
The two GOP lawmakers took a shot at Inslee's White House ambitions, and promised a barrier to any upstream movement in the cause of dam removal.
"The people of Eastern Washington whose lives depend on these dams should not be collateral damage for anyone's presidential ambitions," they said. "The Governor does not have authority to breach dams on the lower Snake River, and allocating state taxpayer funds to consider breaching them would be wasteful."
The preservation of Snake River dams has been a Republican cause for 25 years, one embraced by both Bush presidents. In a memorable blooper, George W. Bush extolled "the river on the Snake" at a 2000 Spokane rally.
Inslee is far from wanting to push a plunger. "If these dams were breached," he said, "we need to see if there are alternatives to replacing the electricity with solar or wind."
The Southern Resident orca population is down to 75 of the great marine mammals. They are very particular eaters, subsisting almost entirely on chinook salmon -- which are endangered in Northwest waters.
The orcas move through international waters of the Salish Sea, as well as the Pacific Ocean off the Oregon and Washington Coast, and southwest Vancouver Island.
They became an iconic species in the 1970's, when Seaworld trapped a pod of orcas in Budd Inlet off Olympia, and public pressure forced release of the whales. In recent years, however, starvation has replaced capture as the chief peril to the whales' existence.
The whale watching moratorium is sure to be controversial as well.
"Whale watching and responsible no/low impact ecotourism is critical to education and conservation efforts that we are all engaged in to protect all whales in the Salish Sea," the Pacific Whale Watching Association said in a statement after the Governor's moratorium call.
Inslee has found an ally in British Columbia Premier John Horgan.
Both have opposed a mammoth, 895,000 barrels-a-day Canadian pipeline that would carry oil from Alberta's tar sands to an export terminal just east of Vancouver. A total of 34 laden oil tankers would traverse the Salish Sea and Strait of Juan de Fuca each month.
Inslee may soon be courting Democratic voters in Iowa, but he has won friends across the border.
"It is clear that the governor is committed to the Southern Resident survival by taking drastic action, instead of just talking about it: Canada needs to follow suit," said Charlotte Dawe of the Vancouver-based Wilderness Committee.
"It's a whopping $1.1 billion bill and the Southern Residents are worth every penny," she added.
The Governor's proposals were applauded by State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas, whose legislative district in the San Juan Islands is prime orca habitat.
"These critical recommendations to protect and recover these magnificent creatures are just the first step," said Ranker.
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