Breach the Snake River Dams

By Kenneth Balcomb, guest essayist

Note: In this guest essay, long-time killer whale researcher Ken Balcomb shows how obsolete but still salmon-killing dams are helping cause the decline of killer whales due to food shortage in the Northwest. The dams do feed us one thing: propaganda. As Ken wrote to me, “I was flabbergasted that the dams are closed to photography, and that their wasteful secret is downplayed in the mainstream propaganda fed to the public.” For more on the dams, see my book Song for the Blue Ocean. For more on Ken and the whales he has spent his life loving and studying, see my soon-to-be-released book Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel, which will hit bookstores on July 14. — Carl Safina

Ken Balcomb
Ken Balcomb, photo by Carl Safina

I have studied the majestic southern resident killer whales of the Pacific Northwest for forty years (approximately one productive lifespan – whale or human), during which time much has been learned and shared with the world about this iconic endangered population. They are now arguably the best known whales in the world! But, that was not always the case. The common response in the 1960‘s and 1970‘s to my announcement that I was studying whales was, “Why?” “What good are they?”

My best response was to point out that as top marine predators whales are indicators of the health of that environment in which they live – the ocean – and that is also an environment upon which humans depend. Now, with growing numbers of people appreciating the whales’ natural role in the marine environment, and better understanding their ecological requirement for specific food—Chinook salmon in this case—to survive, the conversation has moved toward a strategy of how best to provide that food. There is currently an active discussion about removal of the Snake River dams to save fish, or whales. The issue of whether dams should be breached to provide this food for the whales has now arrived. Would that be reasonable? Are we sure that will work?

killer whale feeding
Killer whale with salmon, photo by Ken Balcomb

I don’t consider this lightly. I tend to consider the status quo of institutions and structures to be enduring and worthy of protection, even if only as displays of the truly amazing feats our species has achieved in the course of human evolution and ingenuity. Not all of our feats have been without unforeseen consequence, however; and, most tend to crumble over time anyway. Dams require maintenance, and they eventually fill with sediment.

Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative nature. And it still seems to be counter to our government’s intent. This is in spite of clear evidence that the salmon-eating population of “killer” whales that I am studying is on a path to extinction along with significant populations of their main food resource—Chinook salmon—huge numbers of which formerly spawned and returned to the Snake River, and fed whales in the Pacific Ocean and humans, before the dams were built.

I had to see for myself what was going on in the Snake River watershed currently. So last week my brother and I drove up the highway to visit the dams on the Columbia River and upstream, sightseeing and taking photos and videos along the way and learning about the current passage of remnant populations of salmon.

But when we got to the McNary and Ice Harbor dams just below the Snake River and on it, it seemed as if an iron curtain had come down and we were prevented from taking any photographs, or even carrying cameras and cell phones behind the fences surrounding the dam structures. It was as if something was being hidden from view. And, it was. There was no point in our continuing upstream to Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams to take photographs and videos of fish passage, because that was not allowed.

Lower Monumental Dam, Snake River
Lower Monumental Dam, Snake River, Photo: USACE

In truth, already well known to others but not to me, these four Snake River dams are obsolete for their intended purposes and are being maintained at huge taxpayer expense for the benefit of a very few users. Plus, they are salmon-killers in a former river (now a series of lakes) that historically provided spawning and rearing habitat for millions of Chinook salmon. And, they now doom all technological attempts to bolster these salmon populations to expensive failure.

Even many of the Army Corps of Engineers’ internal documents recommend that returning the river to natural or normative conditions may be the only recovery scenario for Snake River fall Chinook salmon, and it will also benefit other salmon populations.

You and I are paying for this economic and ecological blemish with our tax dollars spent to maintain structures and negative return on investment in power generation, “barge” transportation, and recreation. The question I would now ask is “Why?” and “What good are they?”

Killer Whales off San Juan Island
Killer whales off San Juan Island, Photo by Carl Safina

Removal can be done inexpensively and doing so makes perfect ecological sense. The technological fixes for the dams have not improved wild salmon runs, and there is nothing left to try. There are no fixes for the deadly lakes behind the dams. As a nation, we are dangerously close to managing the beloved southern resident killer whale population to quasi-extinction (less than 30 breeding animals) as a result of diminishing populations of Chinook salmon upon which they depend. There are only about eighty of these whales now remaining (including juveniles and post-reproductive animals), down from nearly 100 two decades ago and down from 87 when they were listed as “Endangered” in 2005.

If you really want to have healthy ecosystems with salmon and whales in the Pacific Northwest future, and save tax/rate payer money at the same time, please contact or mail your thoughts to your elected representatives in support of a Presidential mandate to begin the return of the Snake River ecosystem to natural or normative conditions by the end of the current presidential administration. The time is now!

When they are gone it will be forever. Returning the Snake River to natural condition will help salmon and whales, and save money. Please do not wait until all are gone. Call or write your representatives today!

 

Ken Balcomb, 11 June 2015

Senior Scientist, Center for Whale Research

Friday Harbor, WA 98250

Human Journey

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Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.