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NW Fishletter #387, Nov. 5, 2018

[5] Dam Removal Issue Still Undecided As Orca Task Force Moves Forward

A task force that has worked since March to develop recommendations on how best to save endangered southern resident killer whales is close to completing its first report for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee by Nov. 16. When it meets on Nov. 6, the question of whether to include a recommendation about removing the four lower Snake River dams remains.

Pressure to remove the dams started heating up this summer, when the orcas captured headlines across the world after a mother whale lost her newborn, and then kept its body afloat for more than two weeks in what was interpreted as a display of mourning. Then, a three-year-old whale from the same pod became sick and disappeared, leaving just 74 whales in a group that has not had a successful birth in three years.

After full-day meetings on Oct. 17 and 18, the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force released its draft recommendations on Oct. 24. Its 49 members reached consensus on most of the 36 proposed recommendations, initially developed by three working groups and refined during the October meetings. But a few issues were left for further discussion, including draft "Recommendation 9: Determine whether removal of Lower Snake River Dams would provide benefits to Southern Resident orcas commensurate with the associated costs, and implementation considerations." If adopted, that recommendation would ask the governor to work with the states of Idaho and Oregon and "act quickly" to hire a neutral third party and establish a stakeholder process to address issues associated with the possible removal of the dams.

Proponents of dam removal have been calling for more drastic and immediate measures. Potential recommendations that didn't make it into the task force's draft included advocating that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unilaterally make a decision to stop operating the lower Snake River dams and seek authority to breach them, and recommending that the governor pass an executive order in favor of removing the dams.

Meanwhile, requests to immediately take out the dams flooded the task force's request for feedback on the potential recommendations, most of them asking the task force to "Breach the lower four Snake River dams in 2018!" The sentiment was included in 36.7 percent of the 994 comments on hydropower actions, while 118 commenters, or 11.9 percent, asked the task force not to breach the Snake River dams.

The push to remove the dams came, too, from environmental groups, which released to media a letter to the task force signed by six regional killer whale researchers stating that, while orcas depend on many stocks of Chinook, removing the Snake River dams would provide access to more than 5,000 miles of upstream habitat and offers the best potential for large-scale spring Chinook restoration in the region. The scientists state in the letter that they do not specialize in fisheries biology, but know from studying whales that increasing the abundance of spring, summer and fall Chinook is vital to the whale's recovery. Calling habitat in the Snake River an "essential piece" of that recovery, they concluded, "Indeed, we believe that Southern Resident orca survival and recovery may be impossible to achieve without it."

Release of the letter two days before the task force's October meeting prompted several news headlines, including one in the Seattle Times proclaiming, "Orca survival may be impossible without Lower Snake River dam removal, scientists say."

Potential recommendations were first developed by three working groups, selected to address the orcas' main impediments to survival--a lack of prey, vessel traffic and noise, and contaminants.

The working group on prey availability could not agree about whether to support breaching the dams, and instead hosted a webinar and offered two alternative recommendations to either support the Columbia River System Operations EIS process which will examine removing the dams, or hire an independent group to study the issue.

In addition to participating in the task force's webinar, the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a press conference to "set the record straight" on issues related to removing the four Snake River dams. It was held the day before a rally in Portland that called for dam removal, which was promoted with an online survey on the issue that gathered more than 500,000 signatures.

In the Oct. 4 press conference, federal agencies countered nearly every reason for supporting the dams' removal given by proponents. Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) spokesman Scott Simms said in an effort not to influence an ongoing process to develop an environmental impact statement for the Columbia River System Operations, Bonneville and the Army Corps had largely remained silent during much of the debate. The EIS will include an evaluation of removing the dams as one of its alternatives.

Federal officials said one of the biggest misconceptions is that the lack of Chinook from the Snake River is a key or primary factor in the orca's decline. The petition claims, "More than 50% of their diet comes from salmon produced in the Columbia Basin, half of which were produced in the Snake River System." It also concludes, "NOTHING else, not more spill across the dams, not more hatchery fish, not less boat traffic, not more studies and a new EIS can achieve this in time to save wild salmon or Southern Resident Orcas."

Kristen Jule, BPA's fish and wildlife policy planning manager, said there are more Snake River Chinook now than there were in the 1960s, before the lower Snake River dams were built. One of the three pods that make up the southern resident population--the same one to lose a newborn and three-year-old--doesn't even travel to the mouth of the Columbia to feed on Chinook.

Jule noted that all three pods primarily rely on 15 different Chinook runs, only two of them from the Snake River. And unlike many of the other Chinook runs they rely on, trends for the two Snake River populations have been increasing, and right now are their most consistent resource. "I think they are relevant stocks for the southern resident killer whales," she said, but added, "They are not the key limiting factor."

Army Corps biologist Tim Dykstra added, "Removal or breach of the Snake River dams, at best, can provide an incremental benefit to two of those 15 stocks."

Another misconception suggested by groups pushing to remove the dams is that the four lower Snake River dams are being operated at a loss, and offer only low value surplus energy. Kieran Connelly, VP of generation and asset management, said the four dams generate about 1,000 aMW per year--roughly the same amount that Seattle City Light uses over the course of a year. Costing between $10 and $14 per MW hour--including expenses and capital--it's among the most affordable electricity in the Pacific Northwest, he said.

Connelly noted that as the Pacific Northwest increases its reliance on non-carbon sources of power like wind and solar, the dams play an important role in reliability, providing clean power when those sources are unavailable. The Snake River dams, also help to support the nation's largest Fish and Wildlife Program, he said.

Finally, dam-removal proponents contend that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has the authority to remove the Snake River dams, and the process will be relatively fast and inexpensive.

The petition says, "The Corps of Engineers can implement breaching the dams now by using the existing 2002 EIS's 'Breach Alternative Four.' It also claims, "The first two dams can be breached for the cost of another EIS estimated at $80 million; 5 years to completion," and "Congressional Legislation or new appropriations are not needed to start breaching the Snake river dams this year!"

Not true, said Beth Coffey, the Corps' chief of civil works. "Breaching will require Congressional authorization," she said. "The Corps has consistently said we would need authorization. We do not have any standing authority to eliminate a project that Congress has authorized."

Coffey said the 2002 EIS did include an alternative to breach the dams, but since it was not selected as the recommended alternative, the Corps cannot now choose that as their preferred alternative without additional National Environmental Policy Act analysis. Even if it had been selected as the preferred alternative, she said, it would have required Congressional approval and funding. Neither was sought at the time, she noted.

In 2002, the environmental impact statement estimated that breaching the dams would cost about $900 million, and today's dollars would put the price tag at over $2 billion, she said. Those costs would have to be reconsidered in a new analysis as well.

Dykstra added that the 2002 EIS selected an aggressive non-breach alternative which led to significant actions to retrofit the system and overhaul how salmon, particularly juveniles, migrate through these dams. "That has been implemented, and based on some of the adult returns, the trend over time would indicate there has been success,"

NOAA Fisheries did not participate in the press briefing, but did issue a new fact sheet with the latest research on threats to orcas, stating, in part, that the Columbia and Snake rivers produce most of the wild and hatchery Chinook salmon on the West Coast; that an independent scientific panel concluded the Columbia Basin may now produce more juvenile salmon than they did prior to dams and development; and that Puget Sound Chinook are just as important to orcas, but much more at risk due to degraded habitat.

Breaching dams, it notes, is a long-term proposition that would take congressional authorization and "several generations of salmon, at least, before any results could become clear."

"We must address all of the threats to Southern Residents, because plentiful salmon will provide less help to the whales if they carry toxic contaminants, or if ship noise drowns out the echolocation the whales use to track salmon prey," NOAA's publication says.

Meanwhile, Save Our Wild Salmon--which advocates removing the dams as a key measure that would help both orcas and salmon--countered with its own fact sheet, stating that NOAA Fisheries' own study found 7 of the top 15 priority Chinook stocks for southern residents come from the Columbia Basin, including two especially critical stocks from the Snake River. "NOAA satellite tag data shows that Southern Resident killer whales hunt and depend on Snake River Chinook salmon during the winter and spring months, which are an especially critical time of year for the orcas," the fact sheet states.

It also says that the Snake River once averaged annual production of 650,000 wild adult spring Chinook, whereas currently, this stock of combined hatchery and wild Chinook returns has been less than 50,000 fish.

Their fact sheet also countered BPA's statement during the press conference that the trend of declining southern resident killer whales doesn't track with the trends of Snake River Chinook abundance. "Southern Resident killer whale mortality is directly correlated with coastwide Chinook abundance, not any one particular salmon run. What orca scientist agree on is that orcas are starving and that they need more Chinook salmon available--throughout the year--in key foraging areas and at the time when they are foraging there," their response says.

Whether any recommendation that includes Snake River dam breaching makes the task force's final cut has yet to be seen. But may of the other draft recommendations could impact hydropower have made it into the draft report.

One is, "Recommendation 8: Increase spill to benefit Chinook for Southern Residents by adjusting Total Dissolved Gas allowances at the Snake and Columbia River dams." That recommendation would direct the state Department of Ecology to increase dissolved gas allowances from 115 percent up to 125 percent to allow the use of best available science to determine spill levels over the dams to benefit Chinook and other salmonids, coordinating with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and monitoring the impacts to ensure changes in spill do not negatively affect salmon or other species.

Also in the draft is, "Recommendation 7: Prepare an implementation strategy to re-establish salmon runs above existing dams, increasing prey availability for Southern Resident orcas." The dams mentioned include Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee on the Columbia River, and the Tacoma Diversion, Howard Hanson and Mud Mountain dams in the Puget Sound.

The draft also recommends increasing hatchery production consistent with sustainable fisheries, stock management and the Endangered Species Act; adjusting game fish regulations to encourage removal of non-native predatory fish including walleye and bass; and supporting more effective management of sea lions and other pennies in the Columbia River. -K.C. Mehaffey

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