Clean energy vs. whales: how to choose?
Northwest's dams are a source of clean energy. But scientists say they endanger salmon and orcas.
It's an environmental conundrum: As states try to meet their clean-energy goals, must endangered species pay a price? That's the question facing Washington and Oregon – and the endangered orcas living in Puget Sound.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Dams in the Columbia River Basin have been a major cause of plummeting salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest for decades. It's a problem that costly government programs so far have failed to solve, despite continual federal court orders.
Scientists and policymakers now realize the situation could become worse as climate change looms and other iconic ocean species are affected as well – a classic tale about the interconnectedness of environmental challenges and their solutions.
Six prominent scientists recently warned that the survival of endangered orcas in Puget Sound, which rely on salmon for sustenance, could rest on the removal of four major dams along the basin.
But thanks largely to hydropower operations on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, the region is relatively green in terms of climate-changing gas emissions compared with other parts of the US. How to reduce the effects, if not the risk, of global warming while also protecting endangered species is the problem.
Both wild salmon and orcas (also known as killer whales) are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, which means government agencies must find ways to recover dwindling numbers.
"Their futures are intricately linked," says Rich Osborne, research associate with the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Wash., and one of the six orca scientists who recently wrote to members of Congress from the Northwest and the regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Puget Sound orcas, grouped into three family units, now number in the 80s – a drop of at least one-third from historic levels. Columbia Basin salmon runs today are no more than 10 percent of pre-dam times, when millions traveled between the Pacific Ocean and upstream spawning grounds.