For Orcas and Salmon, This Dam Plan Is a Disaster

Leaders in the Pacific Northwest must step up where federal agencies have failed.

The removal of dams on the Snake River could save the Pacific Northwest's dwindling orca population.
The removal of dams on the Snake River could save the Pacific Northwest's dwindling orca population. (MILES RITTER / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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Federal agencies had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to save wild salmon and the orca whales that depend on them. The agencies had four years to get it right — but when they stepped up to the plate, they whiffed.

In early 2016, a judge ordered three federal agencies to revise their operating plans for hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers in the Pacific Northwest to comply with the Endangered Species Act and help recover endangered salmon and steelhead. The court mandated the agencies take a hard look in particular at whether they should restore a 140-mile stretch of the lower Snake River by removing four federal dams there. 

The lower Snake once acted like a superhighway for migrating salmon, connecting some 5,500 miles of pristine spawning streams with the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. Scientists have long said removing the dams is foundational to the recovery of both endangered salmon and critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales (orcas) that depend on salmon as prey.

But agencies instead produced a plan that largely maintains the status quo. Now, it’s up to communities in the region to work together, and to local elected leaders to join them.

What just happened?

On July 31, 2020, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration, and the Bureau of Reclamation produced a plan for hydrosystems operations in the Columbia River basin, one of the most heavily dammed river systems on Earth. The plan maintains the status quo: a do-little decision that will ultimately prove disastrous for commercial and recreational fishing communities, tribes, and other river users, and lethal for the salmon, steelhead and orcas.

“It’s a missed opportunity,” said Earthjustice attorney Todd True in an interview with a Seattle-based television news program when the agencies released a very similar draft plan earlier this year. “It shows that these agencies are not going to put together the kind of broad comprehensive solution we need that restores the river, that makes sure we have a good electric system, that addresses transportation issues, irrigation, our commitment to the tribes. It’s not going to get us there.”

How did we get here?

Earthjustice brought a lawsuit against these federal agencies in 2001, led by True. Since then the courts have thrown out five different plans — all, like the new draft, too focused on continuing the status quo and not on what salmon need to recover and thrive. In 2014, on behalf of fishing and conservation groups and in concert with the Nez Perce Tribe and the state of Oregon, True sued the federal agencies that run the hydrosystem. In early 2016, a judge ruled in favor of these groups — and the salmon — and ordered the agencies to design a new operating plan. 

Following the court win, hundreds of thousands of people across the country spoke out in favor of restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River. In public meetings all over the region, from the mountains of Idaho to the coastline of the Puget Sound, locals turned out to speak up for the salmon and the orcas.  

In the ensuing years, study after study showed that river restoration not only is doable, but could benefit more than just the fish. An independent study showed that a mixed portfolio of clean energy from wind and solar could replace the energy the dams produce, with energy savings at little additional cost to ratepayers — as low as $1.25/month. Another study focused on the economics of the issue concluded that river restoration would have a positive overall impact on the regional economy. And a public opinion poll showed vast public support across the region for saving the salmon, even if energy rates ticked up. 

What’s at stake? 

While 13 species of wild salmon and steelhead are sliding toward extinction, endangered Southern Resident orcas that rely heavily on chinook from the Snake River are also disappearing. A mother orca’s 17-day long vigil for her dead calf touched people around the world and brought to light the dire straits of her kin. 

And it’s not just the wildlife that are at risk of losing out. Commercial and recreational fishing communities are also taking a heavy hit, with fishing seasons getting shrunk or altogether cancelled due to the fragile state of the native fish. Tribes that rely on the salmon not only for sustenance, but for important cultural and ceremonial reasons are experiencing the gravest injustices from the dams.

People have taken to the street on behalf of orcas, paddled out onto the flat reservoirs behind the dams where the salmon struggle to migrate, and flown to Washington D.C. to meet with leaders to demand action in the Pacific Northwest. 

And yet, when the federal agencies had the opportunity to bring the region forward together with a plan that reimagines how the river can work for everyone, they failed. 

How do we solve this problem?

“The way we’re going to get there is through the political leadership that is beginning to emerge in the region… and conversations with people actually talking to each other,” said True.

Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington created a taskforce to issue recommendations about how to save the endangered orcas. As part of this process, tribes, fishing communities, farmers, utilities, and other river users have gathered to discuss what they need in order to make dam removal feasible. Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon recently came out in support of this collaborative approach to solving the issue. Leaders in Idaho are trying to confront the extinction crisis as well. 

While the federal agencies have failed in their mandate, people are already working together toward the greatest river restoration and salmon recovery in history . 

If you care about salmon, orcas, and healthy rivers, it’s time to speak up. Tell governors Inslee and Brown that they’re on the right track, and let our leaders in Congress know that by working together, we can solve this problem. The time to do that is now, before the salmon and the orcas finish their swim to extinction — because once they do that, there is no going back.

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This blog post was originally published on March 3, 2020. It was updated in July 2020 to reflect the release of the Trump administration’s final environmental impact statement.

Maggie worked at Earthjustice from 2014–2021.

Established in 1987, Earthjustice's Northwest Regional Office has been at the forefront of many of the most significant legal decisions safeguarding the Pacific Northwest’s imperiled species, ancient forests, and waterways.