Orcas

Orcas, also known as killer whales, off the coast of Washington state.

Three federal agencies made a logical decision last week when they signed a new operations plan for the 14 dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration will manage the rivers under the new plan.

“We believe our decision carefully balances the region’s needs for clean, reliable energy, supports the economic vitality of the communities that depend on the rivers, and includes durable actions that offset impacts on fish and wildlife affected by the Columbia River System,” said John Hairston, the BPA’s acting administrator.

The new plan is the product of four years of study of the river system with a special focus on the four lower Snake River dams. A federal judge ordered the study as part of an environmental lawsuit.

Environmentalists have filed lawsuits and pushed to have the four dams taken out in a bid to help the endangered native-run salmon in the Snake River.

But the irony of their arguments runs as deep as the Columbia River. Among the reasons they give for wanting the dams removed is to increase the number of native-run salmon — so orcas can eat them.

It’s one thing to argue that native-run salmon are special and should be saved at any cost, including the demolition of dams that provide electricity, irrigation water, river transportation and recreation to the region.

But it’s another thing entirely to argue that those same fish that are so precious are needed — for orcas to eat.

We should back up a bit.

Environmental groups have long argued that, for the sake of the salmon, the dams on the lower Snake River need to go. With the exception of politicians courting the environmental vote, most people in the region have opposed the idea.

A couple of years ago, the environmentalists and their political friends decided to amp up the argument by saying the dams were in some way hurting the orcas, whose numbers have fallen off.

That’s beside the fact that most of the orcas don’t go near the Columbia River. Most spend their time either in the Puget Sound or Canadian and Alaska waters. A few do go as far south as California.

The problems with the number of the orcas coincided with Washington state’s 1989 decision to cut in half hatchery production of chinook salmon — the species orcas prefer. After that, the Puget Sound orca population dropped from 98 in 1995 to 73 now. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife mentioned the chinook cutback in a white paper prepared for the legislature.

In our opinion, the lag time is likely attributable to the fact the chinook salmon spend 3 to 4 years in the ocean before returning to spawn.

Last year the Washington Legislature saw the light and ordered state hatcheries to increase chinook salmon production in the Puget Sound area.

In light of the facts, the idea that Puget Sound orcas would greatly benefit from Columbia River and Snake River salmon is, to be polite, a stretch.

Environmentalists also don’t count hatchery-raised chinook in their game plan, in spite of the fact that they remain the best hope for helping the orca population.

Yet the environmentalists cling to the idea of taking out dams. As long as that’s the case, we can expect more lawsuits and less logic from them.

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