Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

Symbols vs. Facts: Removing Dams Won't Help Killer Whales

Columbia River Op-Ed


October 1, 2018

Recently, a new symbol has been adopted for a decades old effort to dismantle the critical and efficient marine commerce system that is built on the Columbia/Snake Rivers. Long-standing efforts to remove the lower Snake River dams have received a boost from recent pictures of a dead baby killer whale. There is no doubt about the powerful symbolism of killer whales facing food shortages. A mother’s love is a powerful distraction from the facts surrounding the tremendous value of the dams. There is no debate that actions need to be taken to assist the killer whales. Unfortunately, politics and tweets have grabbed the concept of dam removal as a convenient “silver bullet.” What is missing, however, are any facts to support the connection between dam removal and an improved future for the killer whales. Simply put: removing the lower Snake River dams is not likely to help the killer whales in any meaningful way. What is certain is the dam removal will cripple the maritime commerce system in the Pacific Northwest with grave implications for trade dependent Washington communities and communities throughout the Pacific Northwest. Members of the affected communities and those of us who participate in the maritime commerce system need to speak up and urge political leaders to look at facts and science instead of headline-grabbing emotionalism.

In the spring of 2018, Washington Governor Jay Inslee convened a task force to evaluate and recommend actions that could be taken to assist the killer whales that frequent the waters off the coast of the state of Washington. The task force is expected to produce recommendations by October 2018. The governor will take those recommendations to the legislature in January 2019. It is critical that those of us that care about the marine commerce system and those that recognize the value of lower Snake River dams speak up. The task force has very few voices familiar with the Columbia/Snake River maritime commerce system. Many outside interests have long opposed the lower Snake River dams. This summer the governor urged the task force to strongly consider dam removal. These outside groups have adopted the new symbols and elevated their efforts to remove the dams. The dam-breakers have long denied the multi-layered value of (1) renewable hydroelectricity, (2) maritime commerce, and (3) needed flood control.

Recent events have recharged dam removal advocates. The argument is that removing the dams will increase the amount of available Chinook salmon – the favored food of the killer whale. There are several weaknesses in this argument. Foremost is the fact that the lower Snake River dams are some of the most effectively operated dams in the United States. The documented fish passage through the dams is between 95 and 97 percent. The fish passage rate is better, in fact, than some rivers and streams with no dams at all. In recent years we have seen salmon runs at the highest levels in 40 or more years. The dams do not prevent fish from getting to the ocean to be consumed by killer whales.

Another key fact is that there are many other dangers facing salmon before they get to the ocean to be food for killer whales. The main threats to salmon traveling to the ocean come from the abundance of federally protected predators such as sea lions and birds like the tern. These predators are abundant throughout the Columbia River system. More effective than concrete and hydroelectric turbines, the sea lions and terns are documented ravenous eaters of salmon. Removing the dams will not facilitate more fish getting to the ocean for killer whales in any significant number.

The principal federal agency responsible for the health of the killer whale population, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maintains that lower Snake River dam removal is unlikely to provide meaningful benefit for the killer whales.

The call for dam removal looks even more suspicious when you consider the certain losses that will flow from dam removal: (1) loss of efficient and inexpensive hydroelectric power (creating electricity that powers cars, phones and data centers in the region, like Amazon and Google); (2) the destruction of the efficient maritime commerce system of the Columbia/Snake River; currently that system allows farmers and others in the mountain west to efficiently move their goods to world markets. No one disputes that a ton of food moves best when moved via barge to an ocean-going ship and then to hungry communities throughout the world. Removing the lower Snake River dam will squash a significant highway for valuable agricultural and other products to find their way to needy populations; (3) dam removal also spells annual flooding risk to riverside communities.

Just a few weeks ago, US Senator Patty Murray from Washington reminded us that Washington is “the most trade dependent state in the nation.” Dam removal will destroy a significant part of the maritime commerce system. The calls for dam removal must be based on facts. Such facts do not exist. So, in a choice between a risky and unlikely solution for killer whales versus certain destruction of Washington communities, regional commerce and increased climate change due to reduced renewable energy, the choice seems plain – except to longtime foes of the dams. Recent events should not be allowed to distract our leaders from the facts. Members of the maritime community should write the task force and let them know the importance of our maritime commerce system:

Kate Mickelson, with more than 15 years of experience in the marine engineering industry specializing in marine, port, and ancillary waterfront infrastructure projects, is the Executive Director of the Columbia River Steamship Operators’ Association (CRSOA).


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