Meira Orcas 5

Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, speaks about the importance of the Columbia-Snake river system to the Lewis Valley Chamber of Commerce in Lewiston, Idaho.

LEWISTON, Idaho — Removing four dams from the Snake River won’t help orcas, salmon, the environment or the economy, the head of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association says.

Kristin Meira, executive director of the association, which includes ports, businesses, public agencies and individuals that depend on the region’s rivers, cited figures from federal agencies to counter environmental groups’ arguments for breaching the dams as she spoke Jan. 18 in Lewiston, Idaho.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee recently announced his support for a $1.1 billion orca-rescue plan that includes $750,000 for another look at breaching the dams on the Lower Snake River.

The number of orcas in that population peaked at 200 in the 1960s, Meira said.

“Catastrophic” orca declines were due to shooting them before the 1960s because they interfered with commercial fishing. More than 40 orcas were also captured alive for aquariums in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving 71 by 1976. There are 74 today.

Few adults of breeding age were left at the time, which may also have an impact today, Meira said.

Environmentalists claim that removing the dams will save the orcas, she said.

“It’s not as simple as one easy action that fits on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker,” she said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, the agency responsible for orca recovery, says the killer whales also eat chinook salmon that have picked up contaminants in the Pacific Ocean, affecting their ability to reproduce, Meira said.

Other problems are ships and boats, particularly whale-watching boats. The sounds their engines make underwater interrupts the orcas’ ability to use echo location on prey.

“We’re basically loving the orcas to death,” Meira said.

Chinook runs along the West Coast, Canada and Alaska are important. The Southern Population of orcas migrates between Southeast Alaska and Northern California, spending only part of the year off Washington’s coast.

“Focusing with a laser on four dams, that’s not going to be the answer for these orcas,” Meira said.

Juvenile fish survival numbers for the Columbia-Snake projects equal, and sometimes exceed, those of undammed rivers, Meira said.

NOAA says removing the dams would not have a positive impact on the fish, she said.

Three dams recently removed in the Puget Sound area — Elwha Dam, Glines Canyon Dam and Condit Dam — were “ancient,” completely blocked fish, were built for storage, with very little hydropower production and were “ripe for removal,” Meira said.

The Snake River dams are an important source of reliable electricity compared to intermittent sources such as wind and solar, Meira said. They are also among the least-expensive power sources for the Bonneville Power Administration, she said.

“These are not loser dams that are too expensive to run and making power BPA doesn’t need,” she said. “Quite the opposite.”

Meira cited claims from environmental groups that more than $30 million was spent for sediment management on the four Snake River dams, adding that environmental lawsuits filed against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were the reason.

In most parts of the country, dredging is needed each year, Meira said. On the Snake, it’s needed every five years, at most.

“Even though this is the most routine, win-win project you can think about, because it is on the Snake River, it draws a lawsuit every single time,” she said.

In 2005, the corps decided to settle with the plaintiffs to get the dredging done, but had to agree to a sediment study, which is not required anywhere else, Meira said. That study cost $21 million.

“That’s your taxpayer dollars spent on a study that you don’t have to do for any other channel any where in the United States, but it had to be done on the Snake so the corps could get out and do that very basic maintenance activity,” she said.

The Columbia-Snake river system is primarily a gateway for exports overseas, where ports in Seattle, Tacoma, Los Angeles and Long Beach are primarily to bring in consumer goods from other countries, Meira said.

Nearly 10 percent of all U.S. wheat exports move through the Snake River dams. The Columbia-Snake is the third largest grain export gateway in the world and the top wheat export gateway for the U.S. More than 50 percent of wheat shipped from the U.S. is exported through the river system, she said.

It is also the nation’s second largest export system for soybeans from the Midwest.

In 2014, 4.4 million tons of cargo were moved by barge through the locks at the four dams, Meira said. That was 302 four-barge tows. The equivalent would be 43,610 railcars or 167,000 semi-trucks.

“Just think about what that would mean for our rail lines, if you can even find that many cars and get them out on the tracks,” she said. “So then you think about your highways, and how many trucks you want on the highways, what it would mean for maintenance, for injuries, for fatalities.”

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