Protesters call for removal of Snake River dams

Photograph by Riley Hanna

By Riley Hanna

In an attempt to save Southern Resident orcas from extinction, protesters gathered in front of the Northwest Division, Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration in Northwest Portland on Friday Oct. 5. The protesters want the agencies to breach the four lower Snake River dams that are currently reducing the population of the orcas’ main food source.

Michelle Seidelman, the Chapter Coordinator of the Portland division of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, organized and led the protest alongside her husband, Miguel Ramirez. She explained why the Southern Resident Orcas, which reside in the Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, are facing imminent extinction.

The orcas mainly rely on chinook salmon for their food source. From 1961 to 1975, the U.S Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Snake River, the largest tributary flowing into the Columbia River. Since then, the salmon spawning area has been drastically reduced and their populations have plummeted. Because the orcas no longer have a reliable food source, they are starving to death. Currently, only 25 Southern Resident Orcas are still able to breed.

The Native Americans who were disregarded throughout the dam’s construction were also given a platform to speak at the protest. Three tribes were represented at the rally. Charleton Jesse Chapman Nightwalker, an enrolled Yakama as well as Palouse and Northern Cheyenne, gave a statement.

“My mother was only a child when she was removed, and our graveyards were removed in order to acquire the land to have the dams placed on the Snake River. This happened in 1954,” Nightwalker said. The graveyards that were removed to build the dams were over 7,000 years old.

There is great debate over the benefits of the dams and if breaching them is the best solution to save the orcas. While protesters are in favor of breaching, federal agencies have different concerns.

According to the NW Division, Army Corps of Engineers’ website, “Barging on the inland Columbia Snake River System moves, on average, approximately 10 million tons of cargo valued at over $3 billion each year. Forty percent of the Nation’s wheat transits through this system.” In contrast, the website claims, “Inland waterborne transport on the lower snake of wheat has declined significantly over the last 10 years as Washington State (through its grain shuttle service) and farmers are finding it cheaper to ship by rail.”

There is also contention over whether the dams are economically sustainable. According to the section of the report “Clearing Up” entitled “Federal Agencies Present Their Side of Snake Dam Issues” by K.C. Mehaffey, the dams generate approximately 1,000 average megawatts annually, roughly the same amount used by Seattle City Light in one year. John Tyler, Public Affairs Specialist at Bonneville Power Administration, and Lewis and Clark Alumni attested to the economic benefits of the dams.

“The power produced (by the dams) is some of the most affordable produced by federal facilities.”

However, Seidelman calls the dams “a bad investment,” because every dollar invested into creating hydroelectric power is sold to California for 15 cents.  

Matt Rabe, Director of Public Affairs NW Division, Army Corps of Engineers, responded to the protest.

“This is clearly an important issue to a lot of people, and we are impressed with the amount of attention the Southern Resident killer whales are receiving,” Rabe said. “But we need to ensure we focus the attention and resources where it will do the most good for the whales in the shortest amount of time. Breaching of the lower Snake River dams cannot happen on the timeline dam removal proponents suggest. It is a complicated process that will require additional study, engineering, authority and funding. The ongoing Columbia River System Operations environmental impact review won’t conclude until 2021, and while we will evaluate breaching as an alternative, no decisions have been made.” In the meantime, Tyler explained that the Bonneville Power Administration operates fish hatcheries, as a part of their fish and wildlife program, to try to replenish the orcas’ food source.

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