June 24, 2016
Victoria photographer Mark Malleson took this photograph of the Southern Resident killer whale known as J-34, or Doublestuf, breaching while he was in the interior waters of the Salish Sea this spring. It’s a remarkable and frightening photo for orca lovers, because the male orca’s ribs appear to be protruding prominently.
That’s abnormal, especially for a resident killer whale at this time of year, when the orcas are typically well fed after a winter of preying on Chinook salmon. And so Malleson’s photo set off a number of alarm bells in the Northwest whale-watching community as it circulated on social media.
Subsequent photos taken of J-34 and his pod from a scientific drone suggested that, while the whales weren’t particularly plump, their girth was within their normal range. Nonetheless, veteran whale scientist Ken Balcomb is blunt about what he is seeing for the Southern Residents long-term: “These whales are starving,” he says. “There simply aren’t enough salmon out there for them to eat.”
Balcomb and the crew at San Juan Island’s Center for Whale Research have been observing the Southern Residents foraging this winter and spring, and the behavior has been disconcerting: The whales are much more spread out, meaning they are having to forage harder for individual fish. Many of them appear underfed, he says. It’s an especially alarming development following last year’s “baby boom,” in which nine new calves were born into the population, one of whom has apparently already vanished and is presumed dead.
Normally, at this time of year, the Southern Residents are being relatively well fed, since they typically hang out along the Continental Shelf between northern California and British Columbia for the winter and spring months, dining on the large runs of returning Chinook. Many of them spend inordinate amounts of time at the mouth of the Columbia River in the winter.
There is an established and powerful correlation between salmon abundance and orca populations. The uptick in Chinook runs of the past few years on the Columbia/Lower Snake have been linked to the recent orca baby boom.
The spike in salmon numbers is largely attributed to good ocean conditions for the past 12 years, and to some degree to a federal court ruling requiring the Bonneville Power Administration to spill water over Columbia and lower Snake River dams at key times of the year to aid migrating salmon smolt in their downstream journey. But it is the continuing presence of those same four dams — Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite, located on the Snake between the Tri-Cities of Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland and Lewiston, Idaho — that may ultimately doom the Southern Resident orca population.
The dams’ authorized purpose is generating hydropower and inland barge navigation that provide cheap transportation of grain downriver for the region’s farmers. A handful of large farms along one reservoir do have easy access to irrigation water.
However, time and economic realities have rendered these dams obsolete. Their power generation has declined over time to about 800 megawatts of power annually.
Worst of all, these dams are mass salmon killers. Migrating smolt, who need free-flowing rivers to get downstream, die in large numbers when they hit the warm, still water in reservoirs behind the dams, or are ground into meal in the dams’ turbines. The warmer water also impedes returning adults, as happened last summer, when 98 percent of the Idaho Sockeye run was lost — a run that taxpayers and ratepayers alike have spent millions in attempts to restore
The result has been disastrous for the fish on all ends of the system. In Idaho, where I saw Salmon River spawning beds in the early ‘60s boiling with returning fish, the runs fell into such sharp decline that by the 1990s, only a single sockeye managed to make it back to Redfish Lake. And on the coastal Northwest, sport and commercial fisheries spiraled into sharp declines all along the Columbia as Chinook and sockeye runs, especially, began to vanish.
The endangered status for those runs sparked a series of lawsuits that produced a number of mitigation efforts. But while the Corps has spent nearly a billion dollars implementing two non-breach alternatives, a federal judge recently found that there has been no improvement in survival rates of salmon.
First, the Corps continued a controversial and still-ongoing program in which they collect the smolts as they swim downstream and barge them below Bonneville dam. This costly effort, rather predictably, has produced only mixed results at best, and so in 2007 came another federal court ruling that produced the spillage requirements.
Again, the results have been mixed. Chinook numbers have rebounded since the ‘90s, but a large portion of those are hatchery-produced fish, reducing their value in the wild; and the numbers (reaching a million Chinook in 2013 and 2014) still remain only a fraction of what the river used to produce historically.
The salmon mitigation costs have simultaneously driven the dams’ economics well into the red. Retired Army Corps of Engineers official James Waddell has produced copious and detailed analyses in recent years demonstrating that, when all the costs are rounded up for maintaining these four dams in lieu of breaching them, taxpayers lose 85 cents for every dollar invested, while breaching would offer economic benefits ranging from $4 to $20 dollars for every dollar invested. Moreover, as Waddell notes, the dams’ ongoing costs have already exceeded replacement costs for hydropower.
The campaign to have the dams removed has been a long-running project for the Northwest’s salmon advocates. After the idea was first proposed in the 1990s, the dams became a major political football in the Culture Wars. Eastern Washington conservatives, especially radio talk-show hosts, seized upon the issue as proof that clueless “Seattle liberals” didn’t care about the needs of their agrarian neighbors on the dry side of the Cascades. When the Seattle City Council passed a resolution supporting the dams’ removal, 11 communities and two counties passed resolutions condemning the action. A Pasco City Council member even proposed breaching Seattle’s Ballard Locks in response.
“We are not going to allow a few Seattle ultraliberal environmental zealots to destroy what took generations to build,” proclaimed then-state Sen. Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue, in Richland.
But the connection between the Columbia/Snake River Chinook and Puget Sound orca populations has added fuel to arguments against the dams.
Southern Resident orca populations began to seriously decline in the years following the marine-park captures (1964-76) that first decimated their numbers. The population dropped so sharply in the late ‘90s and early 2000s that, by 2005, they were listed as endangered by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Their connection to the Columbia/Snake River Chinook has, over the years, mostly been anecdotal. Canadian scientist John Ford documented in the late 1990s that both the Southern Residents and their Northern Resident neighbors from Vancouver Island were, in the winter month, primarily dining on salmon that were migrating from the open sea to the Columbia.
But beginning in 2012, a series of studies involving tracking devices attached to members of the Southern Resident pods began to establish concrete evidence that the whales were spending an inordinate amount of time in the vicinity of the mouth of the Columbia in the winter months. By 2015, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had announced it was proceeding with the necessary process to list the Pacific Coast waters as critical habitat for the orcas.
A recent ruling by yet another federal judge, Michael Simon, made clear that the BPA’s efforts for restoring salmon to the Columbia were still woefully inadequate, and it urged the administration to return to considering taking out the four Lower Snake dams. In doing so, it recommended yet another round of meetings and studies, suggesting the dam removal may still be years down the road.
But while the wheels of bureaucracy churn slowly, time is fast running out for the Southern Residents. As the mute testimony of J34 and the other Southern Residents makes clear, we are at serious risk of losing all this forever.
Removing the Snake River dams wouldn’t be a panacea — there remains a long road ahead to restore Puget Sound salmon runs to full health, another essential component of any long-term recovery for the population — but it would at least provide them the hope of getting some relief in the short term.
Waddell and his organization, Dam Sense, have spent much of the past year lobbying the Obama administration to take executive action to remove the dams. Waddell says the administration has been sympathetic to his pleas, and D.C. officials have acknowledged that a low-cost dam removal is both feasible and sensible. But they quietly are awaiting action from Washington state officials, particularly its leading Democrats, before they’d undertake such an executive order.
Ever since the brouhaha of the 1990s, the state’s political class – including its liberal, ostensibly “environmentalist” Democrats – have veered sharply away from any talk of breaching the dams, largely out of an abject fear of reigniting the Culture War resentments that continue to simmer in rural areas. In recent months, orca and salmon advocates have been pleading with Gov. Jay Inslee, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, and other officials to finally take action on the dams, but they have been largely stonewalled and ignored.
Asked about the salmon and their relationship to the orcas earlier this spring in a video discussion, Murray responded with a spiel straight out of the 1990s: “You know the dams in our state are an incredibly important part of our economy, in terms of electric production, in terms of our transportation systems, in terms of our water use, and our salmon and wildlife and fish are an important part of our economy too. Balancing that is always a challenge.
“I know how hard it is to take out a dam,” she added, “because I worked on the Elwha Dam removal for well over a decade, and it’s costly, and it was a challenge.”
But the Snake River dams are very different from the Elwha dams in several key regards, the main one being that they have large earthen-berms whose initial removal, as Waddell has demonstrated, would be a very simple matter: Simply excavate the earthen portions and leave the adjoining concrete structures in place, but out of use. Waddell argues that such a plan, in fact, would be so cheap that it could be financed simply within the Bonneville Power Administration’s and the Army Corps’ current operating budgets for the dams by diverting the costs of salmon mitigation.
In fact, he argues, it could begin as early as this spring or summer. This, he argues, would provide the only viable means of cooling the reservoirs, that according to NOAA, will be as hot as 2015.
Murray cracked open a window at the end of her remarks, though: “So it’s important that we look at all these issues and we do it in a balanced way, and actually right now the courts are looking at this issue and we’ll be watching closely to see what they say.”
Well, the courts have had their say, and Judge Simon was clear in his overall verdict: It is time to seriously consider removing those four dams.
Many observers seem to believe that the ruling will only ensure another round of studies and talks and delays. “Indications are that regional federal agencies will submit yet another inadequate plan, causing delays past 2018 and into 2020 or later,” Jim Waddell observes. “That’s already happened five times.”
But Waddell believes that the time has run out, both for the orcas, and for the salmon. He has proposed an immediate drawdown on Lower Granite dam to protect salmon from high river temperatures this summer, and starting the breaching process by the end of the year.
“Without action now,” he says, “Snake River wild salmon runs will be lost in the next one to three years, with hatcheries not far behind.”
If that happens, it will be because of the failure of the federal administrations to respond in a timely fashion, and a massive failure of political will on the part of the Washington’s politicians.
Update: On Monday, Dec. 19, Southern Resident orca J-34 was found dead north of Vancouver. Scientists believe it was likely due to malnutrition.
This article has been updated to correct photographer Mark Malleson’s hometown.