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More Spill at NW Dams Proposed to Help Starving NW Orcas

The Northwest's Southern Resident orca population is down to 75, the lowest number in 30 years. (Ingrid Taylar/Flickr)
The Northwest's Southern Resident orca population is down to 75, the lowest number in 30 years. (Ingrid Taylar/Flickr)
February 13, 2019

VANCOUVER, Wash. - Washington state is proposing to increase the volume of water spilled over Columbia and Snake River dams to aid salmon recovery, a plan designed to feed the region's dwindling orca population.

The state Department of Ecology is to hold a public meeting on the proposal today in Vancouver. The agency is responsible for total dissolved gas levels in the rivers, and it's a delicate balance; more spill helps migrating fish navigate the dams, but too much increases gas levels and could hurt some fish.

Robb Krehbiel, a Northwest representative for the group Defenders of Wildlife, said the plan is a recommendation of the state's Southern Resident Orca Task Force.

"Given the task force coming together, the awful images that we saw this summer of orcas dying in the Sound right before our eyes, it really motivated action," he said, "and this is one of the most effective things that the state can do in the near term to provide immediate relief to Southern Resident orcas."

Krehbiel said increasing spill is the safest way to get juvenile salmon to the ocean, and the state estimates the plan would boost salmon numbers by about 145,000. It's a three-year plan for eight dams on the lower Columbia and Snake rivers.

Sristi Kamal, also a Northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, is to attend today's meeting in Vancouver. To accommodate the plan, the state would increase its dissolved gas standards to 120 percent before this year's salmon run, and to 125 percent in 2020. Kamal said there's no reason to wait to increase to the higher standard, which could save another 5,000 salmon.

"We are going to urge them to try and increase the standard to 125 percent this year, if possible," she said. "This is a three-year agreement, so we definitely support it, but we would also like it to continue beyond these three years."

Critics of spill have pointed out that the dams will generate less power, but Krehbiel said the plan is flexible, allowing dam operators to reduce spill during peak energy-demand hours.

"It allows sort of a 'best of both worlds' scenario," he said, "where we get more fish without severely impacting the amount of energy being produced."

There are only 75 Southern Resident orcas left, the lowest number in three decades. The public can comment on the Ecology Department proposal through Feb. 28.

In the long run, Krehbiel said, the federal government needs to consider removing four lower Snake River dams to better recover salmon.

The proposal and an opportunity for the public to comment are online at

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA