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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Why Now Is The Time To Breach The Snake River Dams

This morning I got the welcome news that the Southern Resident population increased by one more, with the birth of L121 to L94, spotted by NOAA researcher Brad Hanson on the outer coast research cruise that's currently underway. This is fantastic, the third calf in less than two months after we went over two years without a birth. Yet the fact remains that these endangered orcas number just 80 whales, down from 87 at the time of their endangered listing ten years ago.

There are those who would like to dispute this because it's a complicated problem to tackle, but it is clear that generating more Chinook salmon for these whales is the number one way we can increase their chances of survival. The other major risk factors - toxins and vessel effects - are compounded by a lack of food. When the whales aren't getting enough to eat, they metabolize their pollutant-filled fat stores and compromise their immune system and reproductive capacity. When there aren't enough fish, any noise from boats might make it harder for the whales to find the few fish that are there. Increase the number of salmon, and both these other problems decrease as well.

The big question is how to generate more fish. A series of workshops and several years of data analysis by NOAA and DFO determined that increasing fishing regulations wouldn't be enough of an impact. Population modeling has shown that even if we stop fishing, the amount of fish that makes available to the whales isn't significant enough to stimulate population recovery. Fishing is just one piece of an already small pie (where the pie is the number of salmon out there). We need to make a bigger pie.

K25 Scoter with a salmon in his mouth
Luckily, we have a potential action before us that could drastically increase the amount of salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Not by tens or even hundreds of thousands of fish, but by millions of fish. Remove (or breach) the four lower Snake River dams.

At first, you may wonder what role the Snake River, way over there in eastern Washington and Oregon (and Idaho and Wyoming) has to do with food for Southern Residents. It is now widely known that the primary summer food source of Southern Residents is Fraser River Chinook, but what are they eating the rest of the year? It makes sense that while they spend time on the outer coast in the winter, they're feeding on fish from the Columbia River, the largest salmon-producing river on the west coast. The Snake River is the largest tributary to the Columbia.

NOAA's 2008 Southern Resident Killer Whale recovery plan states, "Perhaps the single greatest change in food availability for resident killer whales since the late 1800s has been the decline of salmon from the Columbia River basin." Fecal and prey samples from the outer coast are hard to gather and so far are small in number, but two samples thus far have shown conclusive evidence that Southern Residents are feeding on Upper Columbia and Snake River Chinook in the winter months. Dr. Rich Osborne, long-time orca and salmon scientist, said, "Restoring Columbia River Chinook is the single most important thing we can do to ensure the future survival of the Southern Resident Community of killer whales." According to Save Our Wild Salmon, removing the four lower Snake River dams would open up over 15 million acres of prime salmon habitat.

A vessel track of the Bell Shimada.  NOAA's research team is spending three weeks following the Southern Residents to study their winter habits. Here they are zig-zagging back and forth off the mouth of the Columbia River on February 19, 2015.
During the 1990s, 13 Snake River fish stocks were listed as threatened or endangered. This led to an expensive study about how to improve the Snake River for salmon, examining different alternatives including breaching the dams. The environmental impact statement included in the report said the highest probability of restoring the endangered salmon runs was by dam breaching, but the economic analysis showed this to be an unfavorable option, and in 2002 the Walla Walla District of the Army Corps of Engineers chose to pursue other options. This decision was contentious at the time, but it's become even more so now.

Civil engineer Jim Waddell, who was featured in the documentary DamNation, has spent hundreds of hours reanalyzing the report and has confirmed what many have long suspected - that the economic analyses was seriously flawed.  The estimates weren't just off by a million dollars here or there, but the underlying assumptions that went into their figures were wrong, leading to a drastic difference in results. The 2002 Army Corps report concluded that the four lower Snake River dams generate $246 million dollars a year in net revenue. Jim's corrected analysis (including omitted data, fixing miscalculations, and brought forward to 2015), shows the dams are actually costing us $217 million dollars a year to maintain. 

These numbers are staggering and the data behind them is hundreds of not thousands of pages long, but here is one example of where the numbers were off. The Army Corps report stated that breaching the dams would result in $82 million dollars of increased revenue per year based on increased opportunities for rafting, fishing, etc. If you delve into the report to discover where this number came from, it came from an economic analysis that listed the projected economic benefit of increased recreation as ranging from $82-350 million per year. They chose the lowest possible number from that range to include in their data. Jim's updated analysis uses a more realistic figure of $158 million per year - still below the mid-point of the projection, but more realistic based on studies that show recreation on public waters is the biggest single category of recreational spending in Washington state and that salmon sport fishing may produce more economic benefit than any other type of river recreation.

Other examples of the errors in their initial economic analysis are failing to factor in adequate costs of maintaining the dams, maintaining hatcheries, and dredging the river as required for navigation and transport. If you want to read further details about the economic data I can get you plenty to read on the subject, but after the few hours I've spent reading up on it, I can tell you I'm convinced that these dams are costing us - the taxpayers - money.

The main benefits provided by these dams are transportation of freight and hydroelectric power. Over the past 20 years the volume of freight transported on the lower Snake River has declined by 69%. The current volume of freight transferred is so low that it is considered, by definition, a waterway of negligible use. 

Over the past 10 years, the four lower Snake River dams have only been producing about a third of their capacity. This has to do with the timing of stream flow relative to the needs of the power grid; the main power output from these dams occurs when we don't need the power. These dams contribute about 4% of the power needed in the Pacific Northwest, but it is feasible to replace these power needs via wind turbines (output of which is constantly growing in the northwest) along with energy conservation and efficiency upgrades.

Especially when I look at Jim's 100 year projections of the economic costs, it is clear to me that these dams will come down. It's just a matter of when. These dams were built over 60 years ago and are at or nearing their anticipated lifespans. It will take a lot of money to maintain them, and doing so just doesn't make sense when our needs for them for transport and electricity are diminishing and the benefits of removing them are so high. Here is why now is the time to breach these dams:

  • The dams are costing tax payers money every year, and will continue to do at an increasing rate over the next 100 years
  • The dams are at or near their life spans. There are 24 turbines that will need to be replaced in the next 10-15 years, with the first three in the process of being replaced now. Let's let these obsolete structures go now rather than investing more money into their repair.
  • Removing these dams is the single most significant action we can take to help the endangered Southern Residents recover. The orcas can't wait dozens of years for this dam removal to happen - they need more fish now.
  • With all the uncertainties climate change poses for our future, it is clear that if we want wild salmon to survive we need to protect and preserve our salmon strongholds. We need large, healthy populations of fish capable of adapting to changing circumstances. Removing these dams would seriously bolster Columbia River salmon runs and make this river basin a true salmon stronghold.
  • All the questions about whether or not dam removal would be successful have been answered by the Elwha River. The river is returning to health (and the fish are returning to the river) faster than anyone could have anticipated. Dam removal has indisputable results for restoring an ecosystem

I haven't wanted to bog this post down with citations and links, but I hope I have convinced you of the importance of removing these dams, and that the sooner we do it the better. Again, if you want to look directly at the sources I'm happy to point you in the right direction. The next question, of course, is what we can do to make this happen. Oregon and Washington have long been states that idolize hydropower as part of their heritage and their future. While it may have been true for us at one point, the times have changed, and only myths are maintaining that idea. We have to change the political will in our region towards dam removal in general, and for these dams in particular. Politicians and other policy makers have heard for decades about the negative effects dams have on salmon, but there are two new pieces to the story here that have been receiving more and more media attention: the economic reanalysis that shows these dams are costing us money, and the fact that removing these dams could be critical to the recovery of our endangered orcas. We need to spread this message far and wide, both to politicians and to the general public. Whether this means sharing posts like this one through social media or talking to your family and friends is up to you. Here are some other concrete actions you can take:

  • If you are local, attend one of the upcoming town hall meetings with Representative Rick Larsen. He hasn't taken a stance on the removal of these dams yet, but we want plenty of people present to tell him how important it is to us. He is holding a meeting on San Juan Island on Tuesday, March 10th from 3:30-5:00 at the Friday Harbor House, plus a meeting March 12 in Bellingham, and March 14 in Everett, Langley, and Mount Vernon.
  • If you are regional (Oregon and Washington), write to your politicians about this issue. Hand written letters are taken the most seriously, followed by typed letters printed out and mailed in. E-mails and phone calls are good, too. We need to raise awareness about this issue to everyone from the governors and senators to our local representatives.
  • Regardless of where you are, sign and share this petition. The group I'm working with, the Southern Resident Killer Whale Chinook Salmon Initiative (or SRKW CSI), is behind the petition and we've already gathered over 10,000 signatures. I have it on the authority of some of the lobbyists that went to Washington DC a few weeks ago that there are people in power keeping an eye on how much traction this petition and others like are getting.

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