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Film Finds Momentum for Removing Dams to Save Orcas

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A new film underscores the plight of the remaining 73 Southern Resident orcas in the Northwest, by examining their primary food source. (Peterson Hawley Productions)
A new film underscores the plight of the remaining 73 Southern Resident orcas in the Northwest, by examining their primary food source. (Peterson Hawley Productions)
 By Eric Tegethoff - Producer, Contact
August 16, 2019

SEATTLE – A new documentary film argues that removing dams in eastern Washington would help the Northwest's dwindling population of orcas.

"Dammed to Extinction" explores the impact of four lower Snake River dams on Chinook salmon populations – the iconic Southern Resident orcas' main source of food. Whale experts in the film say removing the dams would create a lifeline for the whales.

Film director Michael Peterson grew up fishing and skiing behind the dams, and says momentum is growing to remove them.

"I never thought that I would see, in my lifetime, people actually talking about taking them out,” says Peterson. “I knew they were fish-killers, but I didn't understand until I started making this movie how really destructive they are. What's amazing is how large this ecosystem is. We do something up in northern Idaho and it affects a whale all the way down in Seattle."

Peterson says the plight of the Puget Sound whales, now totaling 73, gained worldwide attention last year when one of the orcas carried her dead calf for 17 days.

Proponents of keeping the dams say they're integral for local barging and irrigation. Others say their removal would put the Bonneville Power Administration in a tough financial position.

The next screening of the film is on Tuesday in Issaquah.

Peterson notes the dams put a lot of pressure on young salmon migrating back to the ocean, where they experience hot reservoirs behind the dams. According to the group Save Our Wild Salmon, water temperatures behind all four lower Snake River dams were above 68 degrees last week, a marker that's harmful or even deadly for salmon.

And while the dams were once productive, Peterson claims they produce mostly surplus energy now.

"If we took those dams out, we would not need to replace the electricity and we would all save money, and we'd have more fish in the river,” says Peterson. “So, it really doesn't make sense to keep 'em. It just doesn't make sense."

Peterson partnered with Steven Hawley on Dammed to Extinction, which was inspired by his book "Recovering a Lost River." More screenings are scheduled throughout Washington in September.

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