The southern resident killer whales that live off the coast of Washington state are hungry, because there are fewer and fewer of the salmon they depend on. To help them, the state is looking at removing a series of dams.
Dam removal would help salmon travel up the river to spawn and down the river to the ocean, where the orcas can eat them.
But the dams are also important to another population: wheat farmers. Washington’s wheat crop brings $700 million into the state’s economy, more than any crop except apples. The vast majority of that wheat gets exported, most of it to Asia.
“It’ll go into steamed noodles, pastries, cookies, cakes,” says Chris Shaffer, a fifth-generation wheat farmer with a 5,000-acre farm near Walla Walla, in the heart of wheat country.
The trick is getting all this wheat to Seattle and to Portland, Ore., so it can be shipped across the ocean.
Some of it goes by rail. But more than half of it goes by barge, floating down the Snake River and then the Columbia River to Portland.
Shaffer points out the dams make that possible. Without them, the Snake River would be too shallow and too fast-moving for barges.
“If you take the dams out, the wheat industry in the state of Washington is going to change dramatically,” Shaffer says, “because you’re not going to move by road economically to Portland or Seattle.”
But those same dams make it harder for salmon to move up and down the river.
A truck full of fish; a barge full of wheat
In Pullman, far east in Washington state, Sam Mace is standing at Wawawai Park, overlooking one of the dams that would be removed.
Mace is with Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of commercial and sport fishermen and conservation groups. She says, right now, one of the ways salmon get from one side of the dams to the other is that they’re loaded onto trucks, driven around the dams, and then put back in the river.
“I remember seeing a truck full of fish driving by and then I’m looking down at a barge full of wheat going down the river and taxpayers paying for all of it, right?” Mace says.
Mace says taxpayers could help wheat farmers by improving roads and building more railways instead of trucking salmon and repairing aging dams.
“Isn’t there some option of switching this around, where we have the fish in the river and the wheat off the river?” she asks.
Environmental advocates west of the Cascades have seized on dam removal as a way to get more salmon to those hungry orcas off the Washington coast.
Sam Wasser, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington, studies these orcas. He says recovering the Snake River’s salmon runs would help get the starving orcas some food during their hungriest months: the early spring, when the orcas are exhausted from a cold winter spent foraging up and down the Pacific Coast.
“They’re out on the open ocean, so they’re more energetically spent,” Wasser explains.
Wasser says that because the Snake River’s salmon run through the orcas’ territory in the early spring, “those fish have become extremely important to replenish these whales from the harsh winter.”
This May, the state of Washington commissioned a study looking at how best to help the people who would be affected if the four lower Snake River dams were removed.
The state itself can’t take the dams out, though; only the federal government can.
Federal agencies are also weighing that option in an environmental impact statement that opens for comment this coming February.