Planning for Salmon and Orcas in the Pacific Northwest Power Plan

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The Pacific Northwest Power and Conservation Council is finalizing its 7thPower Plan. In many ways, the region has become a model of power planning, and NRDC strongly supports the draft Plan's findings and recommendations on energy efficiency. The Pacific Northwest's salmon, however, remain in grave danger of extinction. As do the resident orcas that depend on them.

A pod of Southern Resident orcas swimming off the coast of Seattle. Credit: NOAA

Congress passed the Northwest Power Act in 1980 in response to a series of crises. Faulty energy-demand forecasts in the 1970s had fueled a frenzy of nuclear plant planning and construction in Washington State that ultimately was cancelled. And, following completion in 1975 of the Lower Granite dam, salmon runs in the Snake River collapsed.

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Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River. Credit: US. Army Corps of Engineers

As a result, one key feature of the new Northwest Power Act was the creation of an independent Council tasked with the dual purposes of (1) encouraging conservation, efficiency, and the development of renewables and (2) protecting fish and wildlife in Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Idaho.

The Council's draft 7th Power Plan, however, fails to strike this balance and take a complete look at hydropower's impact on fish. In particular, the 7th Power Plan does not weigh the potential benefits of breaching Lower Granite and the other lower Snake River dams against the real costs of maintaining these aging dams.

Today, we joined our coalition partners, Save Our Wild Salmon and the Northwest Energy Council, in a comment letter that asks the Council to reconsider this decision.

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Credit: Ingrid Taylar / Flickr

The Columbia Basin once produced more salmon and steelhead than any other river system in the world. Salmon are a keystone species in the region's ecosystem, directly supporting wildlife such as bears, bald eagles, and the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales. They are also an essential part of the local economy and of critical importance to the local tribes. Yet, despite costly attempts to mitigate the effects of the dams, 13 Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead populations remain listed as threatened or endangered.

Climate change is only making things more desperate for the fish. This summer, high temperatures and low water flow heated the slack-water reservoirs behind the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers to unbearable levels, killing at least 250,000 adult fish and resulting in abysmal out-migrations of juvenile salmon. This winter is forecast to be dry and warm once again.

A freely flowing lower Snake River would effectively open the gates to the most pristine Chinook salmon habitat remaining in the Lower 48 - a cool high-elevation refugia, close to snowpack, and uniquely buffered from the impacts of climate change.

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The Frank Churck River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho contains some of the Pacific Northwest's highest quality spawning habitat, if the fish can get there. Credit: U.S.F.S.

The Southern Resident killer whales have had seven babies this year, but those babies need food. There is a direct connection between the recovery of Columbia Basin salmon and the survival and reproduction success of Southern Resident orcas.

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New Southern Resident killer whale baby J53, born this year. Credit: Center for Whale Research

For all these reasons, we join Save Our Wild Salmon and the Northwest Energy Council in urging the Power Council to remember its mandate to protect wildlife and to append its draft 7th Power Plan with an updated lower Snake River dam removal analysis.

This blog was written with assistance from NRDC intern Caitlin Soden.