For nearly 20 years, several species of Sea Lions have abandoned their natural saltwater habitat to swim more than 100 miles from the mouth of the mighty Columbia River on the Oregon and Washington border to Bonneville Dam just east of Portland, Oregon. Why such a long journey? Because of the bountiful feast of salmon that awaits them at Bonneville Dam.
That’s good for the sea lions, but not so good for ratepayers in the Pacific Northwest, who’ve been on the hook for this salmon buffet for twenty years.
In September, we wrote a piece highlighting the affordable, reliable, and clean energy benefits of the Lower Snake River Dams while also opposing efforts to breach those dams. Some want to breach the dams because of concerns about salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In that post, we noted how the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) – and Northwest ratepayers – had “spent $123 million in 2018 and close to $17 billion since 1981 on fish recovery and habitat recovery” of these listed salmon.
What we didn’t mention in that post was how this investment could have all been for naught if Congress hadn’t acted to resolve the conflict between two well-meaning environmental statutes: The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The MMPA and the ESA were signed into law by President Nixon in 1972 and 1973, respectively. The MMPA prohibits – with exceptions – the killing of any dolphin, porpoises, whales, seals, and sea lions. And, as the Supreme Court noted in 1978, enactment of the ESA “…represented the most comprehensive legislation for the preservation of endangered species ever enacted by any nation.”
What Congress didn’t envision in the implementation of these two landmark pieces of legislation was future conflicts between these two acts. Congress didn’t envision, for example, Sea Lions – protected under the MMPA – helping themselves to a virtual buffet of salmon protected under the ESA as they make their way up and over the dams of the Columbia River.
To aid in their passage up the Columbia River and through the dams comprising the Federal Columbia River Power System, salmon are concentrated and pushed over dams using “fish ladders”. It’s not until the salmon reach Bonneville Dam – the last dam before the Columbia reaches the Pacific – that the Sea Lion salmon buffet starts. The scale is huge. In 2016 alone, Sea Lions killed over 8,900 salmon within a quarter mile of the dam.
In other words, Northwest ratepayers are paying $123 million to protect a fish species, just to see those fish devoured by Sea Lions. That’s one expensive buffet.
Fortunately, in a rare show of bipartisan unity on an environmental issue in the Northwest, the conflict between the MMPA and the ESA prompted Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Jim Risch (R-ID), along with U.S. Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) and Kurt Schrader (D-OR), to facilitate the passage and signing into law of the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act.
Given their robust numbers, this law entitles the federal government to issue permits to the states of Oregon, Idaho, and Washington, as well as several Native American entities, to “lethally remove” Sea Lions that are predating (eating) salmon and other endangered fish.
Ending this absurdity is a good move for Northwest ratepayers who have literally seen a billion dollars of their hard-earned money eaten away over two decades. Applause to those lawmakers willing to cut through the nonsense and pass common sense reforms.