Washington Whale Recover Plan Includes Spill, Dam Removal Study

Photo portrait of Dave MarkhamActing on the recommendations of his task force for orca recovery, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed budgeting $1.1 billion to fund recovery efforts for Puget Sound’s killer whale population. While taking steps to ensure the whale’s recovery is critical, I am concerned by the governor’s broad-based proposal’s potential impacts on the four federal dams on the lower Snake River.

I wrote about this issue in November’s Ruralite when it became clear the dams and their operations were on some task force members’ agenda. The task force’s profile skyrocketed when a mother whale carried her dead calf around Puget Sound for more than two weeks during the summer. The world learned of the pod of 74 whales known as the southern resident orcas threatened by dwindling food sources, water and noise pollution, and falling birth rates.

Among the governor’s 26 funding recommendations is $750,000 for the task force to facilitate a stakeholder process assigned to, according to a statement issued by his office, “inform a path moving forward should the Lower Snake River dams be removed.” This is intended to “provide a better understanding of the environmental, economic and social impacts of the dams.” Another $580,000 is dedicated to revising Columbia River water quality standards to allow increased spill at the dams to help salmon migration. This means increasing the amount of water bypassing the generating turbines, thereby requiring purchases of fossil-fuel produced energy to replace the lost hydro production. The action drives up costs and increases carbon emissions for an unproven benefit.

Inclusion of these efforts is not surprising, but it is disturbing how the proposals were included. The task force based its recommendations on public comment gathered largely through an online survey. The statistics behind its responses are telling.

Task force members report there were 12,270 survey responses but only 3,898 had unique IP – internet protocol – addresses, the identification for the origin of a message sent on the internet. This statistic shows 68 percent of the surveys were from the same origin. Three IP addresses were the source of 400 responses and 21 other IP addresses each originated more than 100 responses. Additionally, there were nearly 8,700 comments specific to hydropower but an initial sampling of 800 of those comments revealed repeated verbatim points about increasing spill and removing dams. These two issues generated over 12,500 comments while all other questions averaged about 4,000 responses.

While a certain amount of mass mailing is expected with such surveys, it is disheartening that such an important public decision can hinge on a process vulnerable to easy manipulation.

Dave Markham
President and CEO