By Howard Garrett
Thank you South Whidbey Record for reporting on the recent passing of three more of our precious Southern Resident orcas, “Hope dwindles as resident orcas disappear.”
While we grieve for them, and more so for the dwindling and pending extinction of this vital and unique orca community, we also have been searching for over two decades to find actions our society can take to protect theirs, or more precisely to quit causing them to suffer untimely deaths.
We’ve learned that the drastic declines in abundance of their specialized diet — about 80 percent Chinook salmon — over the past few decades, and the resulting prolonged hunger, have compounded the effects of their accumulated toxic loads, causing reproductive failures and premature deaths.
Further studies, many conducted by the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, showed that, among all the known habitat degradations, including fishing practices, pervasive toxicity and myriad other factors reducing salmon populations, the blockage of the 5,500 miles of spawning streams in the Clearwater and Salmon river watersheds in Idaho by four dams downstream on the Snake River in Eastern Washington, have caused the most severe reductions in Chinook salmon of all.
If the Snake River could be restored by breaching just the earthen berms beside each dam, up to a million more adult Chinook would be available to Southern Residents within two to three years.
More recently we’ve learned that the dams are essentially worthless, and in fact since the salmon were listed as endangered under the ESA in the late 1990s, have been costing taxpayers and ratepayers uncounted hundreds of millions per year, mainly for remarkable hardware attachments to the dams and truck and barge transport systems in futile attempts to save the fish, while producing no useful hydropower or revenues of any kind, and no services that can’t be easily replaced.
In fact those four dams were sold originally on the premise they would bring great wealth to eastern Washington, Oregon and Idaho, which they’ve done none of. Instead they’ve decimated the largest salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest in both number and size of fish and wasted up to a billion dollars a year.
If we follow the money benefiting the federal agencies and commercial interests justifying the dams, it’s found to be a boondoggle with no real benefit to anyone but the recipients of the subsidies pouring in to those agencies and via the multiplier effect, the entire region. That’s why no elected officials, or PUD or port authority, or chamber of commerce, will speak up to breach the dams and save the salmon and orcas. When any military base or major factory is scheduled to close, the local politicians and civic leaders tend to close ranks and fight to keep it.
So where will the political leverage come from to breach the dams and restore the river and watershed, the salmon and the orcas?
My only hope for a bipartisan economic and environmental champion to make it safe for politicians and environmentalists to support immediate breaching is Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson, who said in April at a conference in Boise that he is extremely alarmed by the steep declines in wild salmon runs to near extinction after $17 billion and counting has been spent to save the fish, and that the river must be restored and the dams must be on the table to do that. Since then he’s caught flak from all directions, although natural-origin spring/summer chinook were reportedly down 78 percent from the 10-year average with only 4050 estimated to have crossed over the dams as of Aug. 22. This number will be refined and reported typically in February.
That $17 billion only counts the salmon mitigation funding over the past 20-plus years that five U.S. District Court decisions have concluded haven’t worked and the salmon are going extinct anyway. Not included in that total are dam and lock maintenance and administrative overhead by multiple agencies and contractors.
One potential Democratic partner to such an effort could be Rep. Jared Huffman of Mendocino, Calif., chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, and on the committee that oversees the ESA, and a staunch environmentalist. If we could find a brave Washington Republican or Democrat or two to partner with those two,
Congress could twist the Army Corps of Engineers’ arm to breach the dams, especially given the pending insolvency of the BPA due to wasting that $17 billion plus overhead and having nothing to show for it but a smidgen of surplus electricity and an aging, bankrupt, subsidized barging service that could be easily replaced by rail transport.
With a few influential people standing up for any of those reasons, the Corps could suddenly decide to issue a Record of Decision to breach and get it started within months. We’d all be better off, and the Southern Resident orcas wouldn’t keep dying.
• Howard Garrett is with the Orca Network