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NW Fishletter #386, Oct. 2, 2018

[4] Orca Taskforce Listens to Pros, Cons on Dam Removal

If Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's orca taskforce was looking for a simple answer to the question of whether removing four lower Snake River dams would effectively provide more prey for southern resident killer whales, they didn't get it on Sept. 27, after a two-hour webinar on the topic.

However, it did hear several different opinions from nine panelists on this and other questions related to orcas, Chinook salmon, and Snake River dams.

Before submitting its Nov. 16 report to Gov. Jay Inslee, the taskforce will have to decide whether to pick one of two potential recommendations offered in a Sept. 24 report from the Prey Working Group, or whether to leave out the issue of tearing out the Snake River dams, or come up with a different recommendation altogether.

The working group gave two choices--both ranking equally with three votes apiece--but several other members of that group did not feel equipped to decide and wanted the taskforce to make its own decision after the webinar.

The options with three votes each would either urge the governor to recommend supporting the process for an environmental impact statement now underway by federal agencies to examine removing the dams as part of its biological opinion on the Federal Columbia River Power System, or urge him to hire a neutral third party to study the issue. This latter option would include initiating a forum for local, state, tribal, federal and other stakeholders to look at the costs, benefits, risks and other issues related to removing the dams.

The webinar went immediately to the heart of the issue--the potential increases in Snake River Chinook availability if the dams are removed. And the answers from two scientists varied greatly.

The southern resident killer whales rely on a wide variety of populations of Chinook salmon, and only two of those come from the Snake River--fall, and spring/summer Chinook, Rich Zabel, director of the Fish Ecology Division at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, told the panel.

The Snake's fall Chinook have increased a lot over the last decade, and the harvest rate is up to 50 percent, he said, adding that they'll probably be the first to be delisted.

Spring/summer Chinook from the Snake have also increased, he noted. Somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of the Snake River Chinook have come from hatcheries over the past two decades, and it's unclear what would happen to hatcheries if the dams are removed. But, he added, because there are still few wild fish, there aren't a lot of gains to be made if the dams are removed.

He also noted that the J-Pod--the family of whales that lost both a baby whale and three-year old this summer in highly publicized events--spends most of its time in Puget Sound, and while the K- and L-Pods both migrate to the mouth of the Columbia, the J-Pod does not.

He said his agency is working on Snake River dam breach scenarios as part of its federal National Environmental Policy Act analysis, and expects to have results in about six months. "So we don't have abundance estimates now" to show what scientists think will happen if the dams are removed.

Michele DeHart, manager of the Fish Passage Center, offered some numbers from its 2017 Comparative Survival Study, which looked at the potential of Snake River dam removal using 20 years of smolt-to-adult return data.

DeHart said the modeling study looked at dam removal because a 2016 federal court order required the federal agencies to consider it. She said of all the scenarios, which included different levels of spill, the study concluded that the highest adult returns would come if the four lower Snake River dams were removed, and the four lower Columbia River dams spilled to 125 percent of total dissolved gas.

Under that scenario, she said, smolt-to-adult returns to the mouth of the Columbia River would increase to two percent under poor ocean conditions, and to 11.3 percent when ocean conditions are good. By numbers, she said, the average increase in returns would be between 129,000 and 705,000 spring Chinook, she said.

DeHart added that an Independent Scientific Advisory Board review of the study found that the analysis was incomplete, because it did not include the additional fish that would return with less predation, and lower water temperatures.

Guy Norman, a member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, showed the taskforce graphs of increasing numbers of Snake River Chinook returns, and noted that the years with plenty of Snake River returns didn't track with the same trends for southern resident killer whale numbers.

Norman said late winter and early spring, however, is a time when Snake and Columbia River Chinook are present around the mouth of the river, and that could be an important time for the orcas. He said one of the main factors to consider will be not only the potential increase in wild Chinook, but also the potential decrease in hatchery Chinook, and the impact that could have on the whales.

Other panelists presented vastly differing views.

Proponents of dam removal told the taskforce that the Snake River offers some of the best potential habitat to increase Chinook numbers. "Of all the Columbia River tributaries, the Snake has the most extensive remaining habitat in the Columbia River Basin," said Michael Garrity, water policy manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Sam Mace, Inland Northwest director of Save Our Wild Salmon, added that much of that habitat is in higher elevations and roadless areas, and doesn't need to be restored. Reservoirs behind the dams in the lower Snake River, which winds through the deserts of southeast Washington, sometimes cause water temperatures to climb to 80 degrees and higher--a lethal temperature for fish. Dams, and the pools below, also provide make it easier for predators to succeed, she noted.

Terry Flores, executive director of RiverPartners, however, pointed out that the Snake River is home to only four of the 13 Endangered Species Act-listed salmon and steelhead species, and some of those are close to delisting levels. The bigger issue, she said, is that if the dams come out, so do the hatcheries, which now produce up to 80 percent of the Chinook--the southern resident orca's favorite prey.

More importantly, Flores said, survival rates in the Snake River are similar to what they are in undammed rivers, like the Fraser River in British Columbia. "A hundred percent survival does not exist. Mother Nature is a harsh mistress. She said in the bigger picture, ocean conditions are what really count when it comes to the size of salmon runs.

Jim Waddell, a retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contended that the Corps can put a project into non-operational status, and--with a 2002 environmental impact statement that has the Snake Dam removal as one of its alternatives--could now choose that alternative because its current option isn't working to recover fish. He also said that a later analysis of the 2002 cost estimate of $900 million to remove the dams was off, and should have been about $400 million, and that the Bonneville Power Administration would be primarily responsible for the cost of removing them.

But Dave Ponganis, the Corps' director of programs for the Northwest Division, said that 2002 cost estimate for removal would put removal at over $2.5 billion, in today's dollars. The money would have to come from federal funds and provided by Congress, he said.

And, he added, "I am fully confident that only Congress can give the authority to remove or breach the lower Snake River dams."

The taskforce must now sort through the panelists' remarks to come to their own conclusions on whether to include any recommendations on removing the lower Snake River dams as part of their larger goal of saving this population of endangered whales. -K.C. Mehaffey

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Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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