Orcas

Orcas.

Independent consultants hired by the State of Washington to look at the impacts of breaching four lower Snake River dams discovered both hope and despair over the potential to resolve the longstanding issue, they said in their draft report released by Gov. Jay Inslee's office Dec. 20.

Although multiple studies by many different organizations have looked at removing the dams over the past 25 years, there is still no clear consensus about the impacts, the study says.

"Despite some recent improvements in collaboration, many people remain wary of the cycle of study, lawsuits and court decisions," it said. "There is both hope and despair about what comes next and the potential for progress."

The report details the social, economic and environmental impacts—both positive and negative—of removing or retaining the dams.

The stakeholder process was recommended by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's Southern Resident Orca Task Force, which received hundreds of comments about removing or breaching the dams as a way to provide more Chinook for orcas to eat. The Legislature provided $750,000 in its 2019-2021 budget to complete the stakeholder process. A team of contractors including Ross Strategic, Kramer Consulting, White Bluffs Consulting and Anchor QEA were hired to provide neutral facilitation and evaluation.

The contractors looked at previously published information about removing the dams, and met with local, state, tribal and federal leaders, and with interest groups and individuals in gathering information contained in the draft report.

It does not recommend whether the dams should be retained, removed or breached, or develop mitigation options. It is designed to provide a summary of the effects in Washington of either retaining or removing the dams, and to help inform Washington leaders about the state's position on an upcoming federal environmental impact statement that will analyze impacts of Columbia River System Operations, which will include an option to breach the dams. The report does not include impacts to Oregon, Idaho or Montana.

The report also does not give a clear answer to the question of whether removing the dams would help endangered southern resident orcas.

"NOAA identified Snake River fall and spring/summer Chinook in the top ten most important populations of Chinook for Southern Resident orca," it says. "However, they have also stated that, for Southern Resident recovery, Columbia and Snake river salmon stocks are a lower priority than North and South Puget Sound salmon stocks because the Southern Residents' foraging patterns do not overlap as much with Columbia and Snake River salmon as they do with the North and South Puget Sound salmon. However, in recent years, Southern Resident foraging patterns have been changing; they are spending less time in the Salish Sea and more time on the outer coast."

The report's executive summary accents the need for more information to create opportunities for greater understanding. "Salmon, orca, agriculture and energy are fundamental to Washington's past and future. They symbolize who we are as residents of the Pacific Northwest and define our communities and our economy," it begins.

The report also concisely outlines the issues in six different topic areas—salmon and southern resident orcas, energy, agriculture, transportation, recreation and economics. These include bulleted sections with perspectives of those who support retaining the dams, and those who support breaching the dams.

It devotes a section to opportunities to increase understanding, by posing a series of questions for each of the topic areas.

On the topic of energy, the report says more work is needed to examine ways to meet energy demand with a decarbonized power generation system. It asks:

"Will there be certainty that the state can meet its energy needs with a decarbonized power generation system as the population grows and the climate changes? Determine if energy efficiency, demand response, wind and solar, or other carbon-free sources can replace the flexibility and reliability currently provided by the [lower Snake River dams]. Are BPA ratepayers willing to pay more and, if they are, how much more and under what circumstances?"

It also suggests differences in interpretation of studies and data on salmon, orca and ecology need to be explored to clarify areas of agreement, disagreement and data gaps. It asks:

"What is known about how the Snake River might respond to breaching of the dams? What are the impacts of current dam management on salmon returns? What are the key differences around conclusions regarding latent mortality?"

The report also points out the need for greater respect and understanding of tribal communities, and a feeling in eastern Washington communities that the "coast" is telling them what to do in a way that lacks respect and understanding.

The final report will be based on a review of relevant reports and studies and interviews—which are included in the draft report—and an open online public survey, and public review and comment on the draft.

Written comments and results of an online questionnaire will be considered for a final report, which will be submitted to the governor and Legislature in early March.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.