In October, federal experts recommended that facts and science—not emotion around dam breaching—guide the recovery of southern resident killer whales

By Ted Case

Photo of riverThe heartbreaking images from the Puget Sound spread across the world. A female southern resident killer whale who lost her newborn kept its body afloat for more than two weeks in what was believed to be a display of mourning.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has studied the decline of the southern resident killer whales and found several threats, including reduced prey, vessel traffic and noise, toxic contaminants, and health risks such as inbreeding.

Much of the focus has centered on one aspect of a complex problem: reduced prey.

Opponents of the federal hydroelectric system also have seized the opportunity to reopen discussions about the fate of four Snake River dams that help provide electricity to the Pacific Northwest, among other attributes of the hydroelectric system.

What followed was a factually challenged online petition signed by more than 600,000 people calling for immediate breaching of Snake River dams. “Nothing else—not more spill across the dams, not more hatchery fish, not less boat traffic, not more studies—can achieve this in time to save wild salmon or southern resident orcas,” the petition stated.

In response to myriad misstatements and falsehoods regarding the Snake River dams, federal officials from the Bonneville Power Administration and Army Corps of Engineers hosted a webinar October 4 to address misconceptions regarding the dams and southern resident killer whales.

Following are rebuttals to information being circulated in the online petition.

Claim: The four Snake River Dams “produce only low-value surplus electricity.”

Kiernan Connelly, BPA’s senior vice president of Generation Asset Management, said the four Snake River dams generate about 1,000 average megawatts a year, which approximates the electricity consumption of Seattle City Light during the course of a year.

“These are some of the most affordable power resources in the federal power system,” Connelly said.

He noted that as the Pacific Northwest attempts to decarbonize, the dams play an important role in reliability and integrating new renewable resources. They also support the nation’s largest fish and wildlife program.

Claim: The orcas are starving because “more than 50 percent of their diet comes from salmon produced in the Columbia Basin, half of which were produced in the Snake River system.”

Kristen Jule, BPA’s fish and wildlife planning manager, said there are more Snake River chinook now than there were in the 1960s, before the lower Snake River dams were built.

She noted that one of three pods that makes up the southern resident population—the same one to lose the newborn—doesn’t travel to the mouth of the Columbia to feed on chinook. She added that while all three pods rely on 15 different chinook runs, only two of the runs are from the Snake River.

Federal biologists have challenged the notion that breaching Snake River Dams—including Ice Harbor, shown above—is a panacea for the southern resident killer whales. Photo courtesy of the Bonneville Power Administration

“Geographically and timing, they are not the key limiting resource or prey for the southern resident killer whales,” Jule said. “Trends for the status of these stocks have been increasing over time.”

Claim: The Corps of Engineers can immediately—and unilaterally—begin breaching dams using their existing authority.

Beth Coffey, the Army Corps of Engineers chief of civil works, said “breaching will require congressional authorization.” She noted the Corps does not have standing authority to eliminate a project authorized by Congress.

“It would take several years to implement once we get authorization and funding,” Coffey added.

In its fact sheet about southern resident killer whales and salmon, NOAA stated that dam breaching is a “long-term” proposition and would take “several generations, at least, before any results could become clear.”

Federal officials conceded the situation facing the southern resident killer whales is a complicated natural resource issue that requires a serious understanding of the problem so the chosen solution will have a positive effect.

“We strongly believe science should be the basis for our discussion and the foundation for our decision,” Jule noted.