OLYMPIA — A $1.1 billion orca-rescue plan rolled out Thursday by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee includes $750,000 for another look at breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River.
The dams in southeast Washington generate electricity and allow farmers to move grain by barge down the Columbia River’s main tributary. Inslee said a task force would study whether wind and solar power could replace hydropower and whether trucks and trains could replace river traffic.
“We need a really thorough evaluation of that, and I’m pleased that we’re starting that serious discussion because we need to have it,” Inslee said at a press conference on a two-year, $54.3 billion spending plan he will present to the 2019 Legislature.
It would be a 21 percent increase over the operating budget lawmakers enacted in 2017. Inslee proposed nearly $4 billion in new or higher taxes, some of which would go to the separate transportation budget to remove culverts.
Inslee based his orca plan on recommendations from a task force he created last spring. The population of South Resident orcas, three pods of killer whales in Puget Sound and off Washington’s coast, has declined to 74 from a peak of 98 in 1995. Experts attribute the drop to a lack of fish, pollution and noisy vessels.
The Washington Farm Bureau was on the task force, but declined to endorse the report sent to Inslee. The Farm Bureau said it backed many of the recommendations, but could not support another look at breaching Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Granite and Lower Monumental dams.
Some 40 percent of the nation’s wheat moves through the Lower Snake River’s systems of dams and locks, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, the dams’ operator. The corps has studied and rejected breaching the dams. A federal judge in 2016 ordered another review that may be finished by 2020.
“By forming this work group, we will have a good state voice in that federal decision-making process,” Inslee said.
Environmental groups pushed for a state-level look at breaching the dams. Orca task force co-chairwoman Stephanie Solien said the task force heard more about the dams than other issues.
“I think we need to bring people to the table to talk. They’re talking over each other,” she said. “My hope is we can help with that.”
Inslee said humans and orcas were having a “shared moment.”
“We share so much with the orcas. We share about the same body temperature. We share about the same heartbeat rate. We share close familiar social interactions and bonds, and we share the need to defeat environmental degradation,” he said. “When we save the orcas from toxins, we save ourselves; when we save them from climate change, we save ourselves; when we save them from pollution, we save ourselves.”
Pillars of the orca plan include $363 million in the capital budget for salmon recovery and $296 million in the transportation budget to remove culverts. The state was already under a federal court order to remove fish barriers. Other parts of the plan include $75.7 million to improve hatcheries, $19 million to pay landowners to protect habitat and $6.2 million for enforcement of water-quality laws.
Inslee’s budget proposal includes a new capital gains tax projected to raise $975 million the first year. The 9 percent tax would apply to the sale of stocks bonds and other assets of more than $25,000 for individuals and $50,000 for married couples. Sales of homes, timber and farms would be exempt from the tax.
Inslee also proposes to raise revenue by raising taxes on some home sales and business taxes on services.