A group of Washington utility districts, ports and business organizations are urging the state Senate to remove a $750,000 provision from its proposed state budget that would put together an advisory body to look at the question of breaching lower Snake River dams for the sake of salmon and orca.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force was set up in 2018 to guide the state’s long-term plan for helping the orca group, as its numbers dropped to 74 individuals, its lowest number in 30 years. The task force recommended creating a “stakeholder process” to discuss potentially breaching or removing dams in the lower Snake River.
The three subgroups that make up the Southern Resident population travel up and down the Pacific Coast, but spend most of the year in the Salish Sea and along the coasts of Washington and Vancouver Island.
The Senate’s version of the governor’s proposal would split the funding between two years and have the state Department of Fish and Wildlife manage it.
The signatories of the letter in opposition — which includes the Washington Public Ports Association, Washington Public Utility Districts Association, Washington Farm Bureau and other groups — say that beyond the issues dam breaching could spell for hydropower, agriculture and transportation up the river, the task force’s project would be a duplication of work already being done.
The entire Columbia River dam system is going through a federal environmental impact review, or environmental impact statement process, and dam breaching is part of that conversation.
“Spending state revenues for this study seems wasteful when we have so many other pressing demands on state funding,” Ron Arp, president of Identity Clark County, a local business group that signed on to the letter, said in an email. “The prospect of removing dams is incomprehensible, given their tremendous social, environmental and economic impact to our region, including the efficient movement of goods, the generation of affordable clean electricity and very positive juvenile fish survival and return trends.”
The Port of Vancouver is taking no formal position on dam breaching, according to a spokeswoman. The Clark Public Utilities board of commissioners has taken no position on the provision, either. The utility gets about 60 percent of its electricity from hydropower.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, works on salmon population health as an agency that has jurisdiction over parts of their habitat, said agency spokesman Michael Milstein.
The federal Endangered Species Act requires the fisheries service and agencies that operate the dams to work together on salmon recovery efforts.
None of the “biological opinions,” statements from the agency on how other federal agencies’ work affects endangered species, have ever called for breaching dams, he said.
“We recognize there’s a lot of improvement that have taken place in the operation of the dams and the way they’re run that increases the survival of both juvenile fish going down river and adult fish going up river,” Milstein said.
Still, while there has been progress with helping salmon populations, the problem is far from solved; dam breaching or removal will still likely be part of the dam-related agencies’ conversations.
While the Senate’s bill would move the operation of the proposed stakeholder group under the management of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the project was always meant to supplement federal agencies’ work, said Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee.
The group would discuss the economic and social effects of dam breaching or removal, along with the cost of mitigating them.
“The goal was to use the report to inform the federal (environmental impact statement) process for the Columbia River system,” Lee said.
Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of regional and national conservation groups, recreational and commercial fishing associations, businesses and clean energy and orca advocates organized around restoring salmon populations, agrees
Joseph Bogaard, the group’s executive director, called giving those connected to the dams and rivers a chance to chime in essential.
“First, so we can insert that information into the federal process and, second, to identify solutions to issues like how farmers will irrigate their fields and transport their grain to market,” he said in a statement from the group. “At the same time, the stakeholder forum will let us examine the beneficial effects that restoring the river and fish populations would have on the fishing and tourism industries. And we could explore what the build-out of new transportation infrastructure and new renewable energy resources to replace power currently supplied by the dams would mean in terms of jobs, commerce, and local tax revenues.”
Todd True, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization that has worked with the salmon group, said it would also empower stakeholders against the process’ bureaucratic opacity.
“We have no idea how much attention the agencies will pay to local economic issues, especially since the Trump administration ordered the process speeded up by an entire year,” he said. “In all the decades this debate has gone on, they haven’t fully examined the issues we’re talking about, so it would be foolish to assume they’ll do so now without being prompted.”
The budget bill was still being debated in the state Senate on Tuesday.