Removing Snake River dams is the wrong answer to orca survival

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When House Democrats released their two-year state operating budget proposal March 25, we celebrated the fact that Gov. Jay Inslee's proposed $750,000 to study removal of the four lower Snake River Dams was not included.

We thought we dodged the bullet – one that would be devastating to our Eastern Washington economy. Unfortunately, Senate Democrats loaded that bullet into their operating budget plan that was announced several days later. Their budget would appropriate $750,000 “for local, state, tribal, and federal leaders and stakeholders to address issues associated with the possible breaching or removal of the four lower Snake River dams in order to recover the Chinook salmon populations that serve as a vital food source for southern resident orcas.”

Words cannot adequately express our frustration of this false narrative being spread in Olympia that starving Puget Sound southern resident orcas would be magically saved by removing the Snake River dams.

Not a shred of scientific data exists that provides solid proof that salmon stock would increase if the dams were breached!

Consider this:

  • Of the 13 salmon and steelhead stocks in the Columbia Basin listed under the Endangered Species Act, only four migrate through the lower Snake River dams. Survival through these dams for young salmon heading downstream to the ocean is 97 percent.
  • More adult chinook salmon will have passed Lower Granite Dam in the last five years than in the previous 37 years combined. Overall salmon returns in 2015 were the highest on record since counts began at Bonneville Dam in 1935.
  • In two studies, 2008 and again in 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) concluded that dam removal would not help Snake River salmon or orca recovery. It says hatchery production of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake systems would more than offset any losses of salmon from the killer whale prey base caused by the dams.
  • In a 2016 report, NOAA added that “no salmon recovery effort on a single river will bring about recovery of Southern Resident killer whales on its own.”

As we were preparing this article to inform you of the Senate's proposed appropriation, a press release from a Seattle-based marketing firm was shared with us, prepared by proponents who want the dams removed. The release announced the group was coming to Olympia, along with a wheat farmer from Colfax, on April 10 to lobby for funding the dam removal study. This farmer already met with the Everett Herald newspaper and convinced the editorial board of the need to breach the dams. Now this group, marketing themselves as “unlikely allies” of farmers, fishermen and food processors was announcing its convergence on Olympia to say “We need a community transition plan if the federal government decides on dam removal,” as if the decision had already been made.

On the same day this group arrived at the Capitol, we intercepted a letter from 43 Democratic legislators asking the budget chairs in both the House and Senate to fund the dam removal study. Not one of those legislators who signed the letter represents Eastern Washington. Not one!

These developments are troubling and telling. They signal that a concerted effort is underway from Westside lawmakers and Seattle-based environmentalists to enlist support for dam removal. They hope to use the wheat farmer and sympathy for the orca to gain momentum. They care nothing about the facts we've cited above. They care nothing about the energy produced by these dams – the Lower Granite Dam alone produces enough electricity to light up all of Seattle. We're astounded they care nothing about the impacts to both our state's economy and the environment.

The Snake River dams provide an inland water highway that enables more than $20 billion in trade, commerce, recreation and irrigation that allows farmers to feed the world. Snake River barges move the equivalent of 700,000 truckloads of goods and wheat annually, reducing carbon emissions. You'd think the environmentalists would take note of that – of the trucks that would have to replace those barges and the carbon output. No, they just want the dams gone. Period.

Frankly, the study money would be a waste. These are federal dams. Most of us in Eastern Washington know the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is unmovable. There's little the state can do, except provide a mouthpiece through this money for the dam opponents.

Suppose, however, they get their way. What if the dams are removed and they are wrong? What if not one orca is saved from the dam removal, not one additional salmon is spared? And now, the dams, their generating electricity, their capacity to allow billions of dollars of navigable trade, vanish – and they are wrong? What a detriment to our state, to our families, our economy, our electrical grid! What a sad waste!

Please join with us to stand against these attacks. There are other, better and more effective ways to save the orcas. Removing Snake River dams and decimating our economy, our power system and Eastern Washington families is not the answer.

Editor's note: Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, and Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, represent the 9th Legislative District. Both are members of the House Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, and Dye is the assistant ranking Republican on the House Environment and Energy Committee.

State Representative Mary Dye, 9th Legislative District
432 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
360-786-7942 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000