Commentary: Removing Snake’s dams won’t save orca whales

Taking down the dams would divert money needed elsewhere to improve habitat and build salmon runs.

By Todd Myers

For The Herald

Follow the science.

These three words are uttered repeatedly in debating environmental policy, but seldom followed. Our policy toward the Southern Resident orcas is a case in point. As a member of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council, it is a particularly frustrating example of our failure to follow the science.

Recently, Western Washington environmental activists visited local newspapers to advocate for the destruction of the four lower Snake River dams. They claim dam removal is a “significant long-term solution” to helping orca.

Does anyone disagree? Well, yes. In fact, all relevant scientific agencies say destroying the dams would do little, if anything, for orca.

NOAA Fisheries, which is responsible for helping both salmon and orca recover, says dam removal would have a “marginal” impact on orca.

The dams already allow 96 percent of salmon to pass, so any benefit to destroying the dams would be tiny. In its 2017 recovery plan for the Snake River, NOAA Fisheries notes that removing the dams might have negative impacts. For example, removing the dams might “increase maximum summer temperatures” and harm fish.

Second, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife ranked the most important watersheds for producing food for orca, and the Snake River ranks behind Puget Sound, the Straight of Georgia, the Frasier River and the Lower Columbia. Tearing down the dams would have minimal benefit in an area that is much less important than many other watersheds.

Activists also neglect to mention that salmon populations in the Snake have dramatically increased over the last two decades. In 1999, activists purchased an ad in The New York Times predicting that unless the dams were destroyed, “wild Snake River spring chinook salmon … will be extinct by 2017.” Snake River salmon are more plentiful today than when the ad was purchased. Current efforts to increase fish populations are working, but activists have chosen to stick with 20-year old talking points rather than 2018 science.

Activists also argue removing the dams would be inexpensive, claiming the electricity could be easily replaced. The study they cite, however, admits that not all the electricity would be replaced. Further, their cost estimates — saying it would only cost $1 per household — are intentionally misrepresented because the estimate assumes every household in a four-state region would pay equally, which is simply false.

They also claim building wind turbines could help communities hit by the loss of the dams. This is particularly ironic. Their own study assumes none of the replacement energy would be built in Washington state. Despite that, in the Tri-Cities, they claimed some replacement power could be built there. Then, at a meeting in Montana which I attended, the NW Energy Coalition said replacement wind turbines would be in Montana. Activists seem to promise the projects to which ever state they happen to be standing in.

It is not that tearing down the dams is merely ineffective. Doing so would actually harm salmon and orca recovery. We don’t have nearly enough funding for critical projects in Puget Sound — the most important source of salmon for orca. Taking hundreds of millions, or billions, of public dollars away from Puget Sound to tear down the dams (for little or no benefit) would be a deadly distraction for the orca.

Activists also ignore the problem of vessel noise. Whale watch operators have been targeted, but there is no mention of Washington State Ferries, which are responsible for much of the noise affecting the orca. It is easy to demand that people in Eastern Washington tear down their dams. It is harder to deal with ferries in your own backyard.

Wasting scarce public money on destroying the dams is not only bad for Washington’s economy, it would harm our efforts to save salmon and orca. It is time for activists to trade outdated talking points for current science and focus efforts where they will make a real difference.

Todd Myers is a member of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council and serves as environmental director for the Washington Policy Center.

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