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Restoring the Lower Snake River

Seattle Times: Gov. Jay Inslee wants $1.1 billion to help save Puget Sound’s critically endangered orcas

Inslee OrcaDecember 13, 2018

By Lynda V. Mapes

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee wants $1.1 billion to pay for a broad-based, unprecedented state effort to help recover the critically endangered southern resident population of killer whales.

The recommendations closely track those of the governor’s task force for orca recovery, the fruit of months of work by more than 40 members.

Tax increases will be needed to pay for the recovery efforts, as well as other initiatives in Inslee’s proposed biennial budget, released in a news conference Thursday in Olympia.

The initiatives are billion-dollar bold, and sure to be controversial, from seeking to revive salmon runs in the Columbia River, to a new panel charged with evaluating bypass of the Lower Snake River Dams; a three-year moratorium on whale-watching of the southern residents; developing options for managing seals and sea lions in Puget Sound and the Columbia River; and a spill program sending more water over the Columbia and Snake River dams to help salmon.

The initiatives will require sacrifice and support from people all over the state — and that is exactly what saving the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound will take, Inslee said. There are only 74 orcas left.

“Everybody is involved in this mission and everyone has to be for it to succeed,” Inslee said in an interview in his office Wednesday.

“These expenditures have to be done now. There are lots of things in life you can put off for a decade. This is not one of them … This is a one time shot. You won’t be able to save them 10 years from now. That is why this is necessary.”

He said he has confidence the public shares his love for the orcas and determination not to lose them as a species. He remembers as keenly as if it was yesterday the first time he saw — and heard — a pod of orcas, while out on a boat fishing with his father in the San Juan Islands, when he was about 6 years old, Inslee said: the primal huff of the orcas’ breath, and sight of their giant dorsal fins all around the boat in the ghosting fog.

Mother orca Tahlequah also moved him and people around the world in July, as she swam more than 1,000 miles clinging to her dead calf. Prominently hanging on the wall of the governor’s office in the capitol is the painting he made of Tahlequah, with her dead infant calf on her head.

While his connection to whales is one he feels in his heart, Inslee said, it is also one he understands as rooted in ecology. From reducing toxins in the water to boosting salmon in the rivers, “When we are taking care of Tahlequah, we are taking care of us,” Inslee said.

“The orca is both inextricably related to us ecologically, and deeply embedded in our heart.”

His proposals include:

• Nearly $363 million in the capital budget for salmon recovery, culvert removal, water-quality and water-supply projects around the state.

• $296 million in the Washington State Department of Transportation budget for culvert repairs all over Western Washington, to respond to a federal-district court injunction requiring the work, a judgment affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

• $6.2 million to enhance compliance with existing state and federal habitat laws.

• $12 million to boost hatchery production of chinook, the orcas’ primary food much of the year, and $75.7 million for hatchery system repairs.

• $750,000 to support evaluation by a task force of breaching the Lower Snake River dams as a way to increase chinook for southern resident orcas. The group is directed to examine the economic and social costs and benefits and ways to mitigate breaching effects for shippers, irrigators, utilities, ports, tribes, fishermen and others.

“We have not had a robust discussion on how to replace services by the dams,” Inslee said. “We just need to get the facts … I know this is a controversy, but I believe the times demand a discussion.”

The governor also is requesting $580,000 for a three-year rule-making process to raise the allowable amount of dissolved oxygen gas in the Columbia and Snake Rivers with increased spill of water over the dams.

The spill is intended to speed travel of young salmon to the sea and to lower water temperatures that in summer are proving lethal to salmon. That measure is controversial because it affects the ability of the Bonneville Power Administration to generate and sell power at the dams.

“We have to increase chinook and the Columbia is no small part of that,” Inslee said. “It is not the only thing we need to improve, but it is a significant part,” he said. Chinook are the primary prey of the southern residents, particularly in summer.

“This is the best short-term thing we have,” said Inslee, estimating increased spill would generate on average 146,000 more adult chinook coming back to the river that could be snagged by the orcas as the salmon migrate home in saltwater. “It doesn’t solve the problem, but it is a step forward. It is a modest reduction of electrical production but it is an investment worth making, and we think the science is credible enough to move forward.”

The budget also includes $524,000 to examine increasing the chinook population by re-establishing salmon runs above Chief Joseph Dam on the Upper Columbia, and $743,000 to improve monitoring and management of forage fish that chinook feed on.

Seals and sea lions in Puget Sound and Columbia would get a close look for possible culling with $4.7 million to collect population information, and to develop management options.

Also included is more than $162 million to detect, prevent, control and remove toxic pollution contaminating sediments, lands, structures, beaches, water, wastewater and consumer products.

Inslee is also calling for a temporary ban on whale watching of southern resident whales to last for three years. It would be in addition to a permanent increase in the distance all boats and vessels must maintain from orcas from 200 to 400 yards, and a new go-slow zone for all vessels within a half-nautical mile of southern residents. All vessels within that distance would need to drop speed to 7 knots or less to reduce noise.

The purpose of the new regulations — which the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife would receive $1.1 million to enforce — is to quiet the water to help the southern residents find the fish they need. The southern residents face a variety of threats to their survival, including toxic pollution, lack of adequate prey and availability to it, in part because of noise from vessel disturbance.

Hunger makes all of their other problems worse, and has been linked by scientists to the inability of the southern residents to successfully reproduce for the last three years.

“I thought a lot about this and concluded the general approach was a safe and prudent one that errs on the side of survival,” Inslee said.

“For we humans, this is a relatively small inconvenience to give them a break,” Inslee said of the southern residents. ” … someone who is starving should not be scrambling for that last morsel that can keep them alive.”

The whale-watch industry spends up to 85 percent of its time with customers watching other whales, Inslee said. “We will still have a robust whale watching industry.

“I came away with the abiding feeling the risk of permanent extinction trumped 10 to 15 percent of viewing opportunities.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2515 or; on Twitter: @LyndaVMapes.

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