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How to Save Our Salmon and Our Orcas


The story of the Puget Sound orca carrying around her dead calf for over 2 weeks is incredibly sad and moved a lot of people. That pod of orcas, one of the defining animals of the Northwest, is in danger of extinction because they aren’t reproducing. And they aren’t reproducing because the Chinook salmon is endangered. Can we fix that? Is this hopeless?

Yes, we can fix it! But we probably won’t. We fix it by tearing down many of the worthless dams in the region.

Ultimately, to save the orcas, we may have to face the prospect that many policymakers have studiously avoided: not just modifying some Columbia River system dams but removing them. Salmon advocates have long argued that ultimately, the only way to restore salmon runs in the Columbia’s main tributary, the Snake, is to breach the four Lower Snake River dams. Taking out those dams would allow salmon to migrate into millions of acres of spawning habitat in the Idaho wilderness — habitat that may become increasingly critical to the fish as climate change warms habitat at lower elevations.

But that’s a politically sticky proposition: The dams provide some 4 percent of the region’s hydroelectric generating capacity. They also create pools that allow some farmers to irrigate crops without the heavy pumping lifts that lower water levels would require. And the locks attached to them enable barge traffic to reach Lewiston, Idaho, allowing farmers to ship grain to Portland.

“The dams are more valuable than ever,” says Jared Powell, a spokesperson for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican who represents Eastern Washington. “With low commodity prices, we need to keep shipping prices low for agriculture producers.” In addition, Powell says, it’s “estimated that it would cost upwards of $372 million a year to make up for the lost power generation of the four Snake River dams alone.”

On the other hand, a study compiled this year for the Northwest Energy Coalition, an alliance of environmental groups, tribes and businesses, suggests that the dams’ power could be replaced by wind and solar, plus efficiencies and battery storage, at a modest cost: The average household would pay little more than an extra $1 per month, maybe less.

So far, however, federal agencies have avoided serious consideration of breaching the Snake River dams — and some Eastern Washington interests want to keep it that way. Rep. McMorris Rodgers cosponsored a bill, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, that would prevent consideration of breaching and preserve the current recommended level of spill for the next three years. Its chances of passing the Senate look slim, but meanwhile, an appropriations bill that would also prevent any increased spill has been introduced in the House.

The power question should be nearly irrelevant. We can make up that power. Don’t listen to a spokesperson for McMorris Rodgers, who is a right-wing hack if there ever was one. Lewiston, 500 miles inland, should not be a navigable port from the sea. That’s a level of engineering that is more than a step too far.

The real problem here is that for western conservatives, the government taming the land is deeply felt. Don’t listen to the Bundys and other right-wingers talk about big government and the land. They love big government. They just want that big government to use its power to run roughshod over ecosystems and allow them to live a subsidized lifestyle of natural resource production. Calling to tear down the Snake River dams, a reasonable proposal, isn’t just a political disagreement for these people. It’s an attack on the fundamentals of western civilization.

Like many environmental problems, there is plenty we could do to try and fix them. We just won’t do it. This used to be the sort of issue that would cause a level of outrage that would lead to legislation and change, but those days are past and people simply don’t care about environmental issues like they used to. That leaves the field to the frothing western conservatives who want to kill wolves, dam every river, cut down every old-growth tree, and dump mine pollution wherever, all with the government paying for it.

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