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NW Fishletter #389, January 7, 2019
 Inslee's Orca Budget Includes Funding For More Spill, Dam Breaching Task Force
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is asking the state Legislature to include $1.1 billion in its 2019-2021 budget to help Puget Sound's endangered orcas, including $750,000 to create a stakeholder process to look into breaching four lower Snake River dams.
The proposal would adopt a recommendation of his orca task force--which he impaneled earlier this year--that "requires the state to facilitate a stakeholder process to inform a path moving forward should the Lower Snake River dams be removed," a news release on his budget proposal states.
Inslee acknowledged the difficult task ahead for restoring orcas, and the salmon they depend on.
"We are undertaking a Herculean effort to save these iconic creatures. It will take action at every level of the environment across our entire state," he said in the release. "We need to restore the ecosystem to one that sustains orcas, salmon and the quality of life for all Washingtonians."
The orca-related funding--a small part of the overall $54.4 billion budget--is designed to help save the endangered southern resident killer whale, whose numbers have dropped from about 200 to 74 individuals over the past few decades. Scientists say the primary causes include a lack of food, contaminated water, and problems with vessel noise and traffic.
Also in Inslee's proposed budget is $580,000 to modify water quality standards to allow for more spill over Columbia and Snake river dams, and $524,000 to look into re-establishing salmon runs above Chief Joseph Dam and dams in the Puget Sound area.
The budget proposal would devote far more on other measures designed to boost salmon numbers for the orcas. It seeks $363 million for salmon recovery, culvert removal, water quality and water supply projects; $296 million to correct fish passage barriers on state highways; $75.7 million to improve hatcheries and water quality issues stemming from them; $17.8 million to provide incentives encouraging voluntary habitat improvements on private land; $12 million to boost hatchery production by an added 18.6 million smolts; $6.2 million to help enforce state and federal habitat protection laws; and $743,000 to improve monitoring and management of forage fish, a food source for Chinook.
And that's just to improve prey availability for the killer whales. The budget includes millions of dollars more for various actions to clean up toxic sites and resolve the orcas' problems with vessel traffic and noise.
Federal lawmakers from eastern Washington had a swift response to Inslee's proposal to fund a task force on the Snake River dams.
"The people of Eastern Washington whose livelihoods depend on these dams should not be collateral damage for anyone's presidential ambitions," said a joint statement from Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who were both re-elected in November.
"The governor does not have the authority to breach our federal dams on the Lower Snake River, and allocating state taxpayers' funds to consider breaching them would be wasteful," they continued. "Congress has the sole authority to authorize breaching our federal dams, and as representatives of Eastern Washington communities that depend on the many benefits they provide, breaching them is out of the question. We commit to do everything in our power to save them," the statement concluded.
Elliot Mainzer, administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, meanwhile, noted in a statement that federal agencies are already working on an environmental impact statement that will examine breaching the Snake River dams.
"We are deeply engaged in the Columbia River System Operations EIS [environmental impact statement] process with the other action agencies," he said, "and we look forward to working with the state of Washington, other cooperating agencies and the broader public, to complete this important process that is evaluating the alternative of breaching Snake River dams."
As for the governor's request to allow for increased spill, Mainzer offered, "We share Governor Inslee's concerns about orcas and we are encouraged by work actively underway with Washington State, Oregon and the region's tribes to develop an approach to increase spill which can better optimize for salmon survival and preserve affordable carbon free hydroelectric generation for the region's electricity customers."
Other groups set aside the issues surrounding dam breaching and spill, and praised the governor's bold funding request, including Puget Sound Partnership, which was charged with overseeing the orca task force.
"Governor Inslee's budget proposal revealed today demonstrates his strong commitment to recovering Southern Resident orcas, salmon, and the Puget Sound ecosystem," said the Partnership's director Sheida Sahandy in a news release. "The investments proposed by the Governor will go far in helping us turn the corner on sustaining the Puget Sound ecosystem and the creatures we share it with."
"We hope the legislature supports and funds these critical investments," Sahandy's statement added. -K.C. Mehaffey
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