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.

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.

"The science is clear that removing four federal dams on the lower Snake River is needed to avert extinction of the Snake's four unique salmon populations," the scientists wrote.

Removing the dams would restore 140 miles of the Snake River to a more natural, free-flowing state, they wrote, substantially increasing both spawning habitat for salmon and a critical food source for killer whales, which can consume some 500 pounds of salmon a day.

Dam removal also would help avert extinction of the salmon species that are most likely to survive global warming. Salmon rely on cool water, and their spawning streams in the upper reaches of the Columbia/Snake river system will warm the least. "Climate change effects are a key factor in the survival of species such as salmon and killer whales," the scientists wrote.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) both want to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in their states to 1990 levels or below. Even for these relatively green states, that's a tall order.

The Pacific Northwest emitted about 44 million tons of CO2 in 1990, a figure that rose to 67 million tons in 2005, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which was created by Congress in 1980 to deal with energy and environmental issues related to the region's dams. Even with more renewable energy sources – such as wind power and biomass, both of which are growing in the region – greenhouse-gas emissions are likely to rise due to an expanding population and economy, the NPCC reported earlier this month.

In planning energy needs for the next several decades, the council warns against breaching the Snake River dams."Given the difficulty of reducing CO2 emissions, discarding existing CO2-free power sources has to be considered counterproductive," the council wrote.

Meanwhile, the legal battle continues over endangered salmon (and their predators, endangered orcas).

Breaching major hydropower dams, which is opposed by developers, industry groups, irrigators, and most elected officials, is off the table as far as the Bush administration is concerned. But federal courts rejected proposed plans for salmon recovery as too little, too late.

Another plan was offered last month. It involves what the National Marine Fisheries Service calls "an aggressive and comprehensive series of hydropower system improvements, hatchery reforms, and habitat enhancements." Once again, federal courts will determine whether that's sufficient.

Environmentalists are watching closely. Says Ken Balcomb, executive director of the Center for Whale Research, who signed the recent letter: "History will not be very forgiving of the resource managers who failed in their responsibilities to these icons of the Pacific Northwest."

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