Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Clean energy vs. whales: how to choose

It's an environmental conundrum: As states try to meettheirclean-energy goals, must endangered species pay a price? That's thequestion facing Washington and Oregon â€" and the endangered orcasliving in Puget Sound.Dams in the Columbia River Basin have been a major cause ofplummeting salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest for decades.It's a problem that costly government programs so far have failed tosolve, despite continual federal court orders.Scientists and policymakers now realize the situation could becomeworse as climate change looms and other iconic ocean species areaffected as well â€" a classic tale about the interconnectedness ofenvironmental challenges and their solutions.Six prominent scientists recently warned that the survival ofendangered orcas in Puget Sound, which rely on salmon for sustenance,could rest on the removal of four major dams along the basin.But thanks largely to hydropower operations on the Columbia and SnakeRivers, the region is relatively green in terms of climate-changinggas emissions compared with other parts of the US. How to reduce theeffects, if not the risk, of global warming while also protectingendangered species is the problem.Both wild salmon and orcas (also known as killer whales) are listedunder the federal Endangered Species Act, which means governmentagencies must find ways to recover dwindling numbers."Their futures are intricately linked," says Rich Osborne, researchassociate with the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Wash., and one ofthe six orca scientists who recently wrote to members of Congressfrom the Northwest and the regional administrator for the NationalMarine Fisheries Service.Puget Sound orcas, grouped into three family units, now number in the80s â€" a drop of at least one-third from historic levels. ColumbiaBasin salmon runs today are no more than 10 percent of pre-dam times,when millions traveled between the Pacific Ocean and upstreamspawning grounds."The science is clear that removing four federal dams on the lowerSnake River is needed to avert extinction of the Snake's four uniquesalmon populations," the scientists wrote.Removing the dams would restore 140 miles of the Snake River to amore natural, free-flowing state, they wrote, substantiallyincreasing both spawning habitat for salmon and a critical foodsource for killer whales, which can consume some 500 pounds of salmona day.Dam removal also would help avert extinction of the salmon speciesthat are most likely to survive global warming. Salmon rely on coolwater, and their spawning streams in the upper reaches of theColumbia/Snake river system will warm the least. "Climate changeeffects are a key factor in the survival of species such as salmonand killer whales," the scientists wrote.Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire(D) both want to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in their states to1990 levels or below. Even for these relatively green states, that'sa tall order.The Pacific Northwest emitted about 44 million tons of CO2 in 1990, afigure that rose to 67 million tons in 2005, according to theNorthwest Power and Conservation Council, which was created byCongress in 1980 to deal with energy and environmental issues relatedto the region's dams. Even with more renewable energy sources â€" suchas wind power and biomass, both of which are growing in the region â€"greenhouse-gas emissions are likely to rise due to an expandingpopulation and economy, the NPCC reported earlier this month.In planning energy needs for the next several decades, the councilwarns against breaching the Snake River dams."Given the difficulty ofreducing CO2 emissions, discarding existing CO2-free power sourceshas to be considered counterproductive," the council wrote.Meanwhile, the legal battle continues over endangered salmon (andtheir predators, endangered orcas).Breaching major hydropower dams, which is opposed by developers,industry groups, irrigators, and most elected officials, is off thetable as far as the Bush administration is concerned. But federalcourts rejected proposed plans for salmon recovery as too little, toolate.Another plan was offered last month. It involves what the NationalMarine Fisheries Service calls "an aggressive and comprehensiveseries of hydropower system improvements, hatchery reforms, andhabitat enhancements." Once again, federal courts will determinewhether that's sufficient.Environmentalists are watching closely. Says Ken Balcomb, executivedirector of the Center for Whale Research, who signed the recentletter: "History will not be very forgiving of the resource managerswho failed in their responsibilities to these icons of the PacificNorthwest."(c) Copyright 2007 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.

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