In a broad, billion-dollar bold request, Washington state's governor says it's time to act to save the whales.

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OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee wants $1.1 billion to pay for a broad-based, unprecedented state effort to help recover the critically endangered southern resident population of killer whales.

The recommendations closely track those of the governor’s task force for orca recovery.

Tax increases will be needed to pay for the recovery efforts, as well as other initiatives in Inslee’s proposed biennial budget.

The initiatives are billion-dollar bold, and sure to be controversial, from seeking to revive salmon runs in the Columbia River to a new panel charged with evaluating bypass of the Lower Snake River Dams; a three-year moratorium on whale-watching of the southern residents; and a spill program sending more water over the Columbia and Snake River dams to help salmon.

The initiatives will require sacrifice and support from people all over the state — and that is exactly what saving the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound will take, Inslee said. There are only 74 orcas left.

[HOSTILE WATERS | The orca and the orca catcher: How a generation of killer whales was taken from Puget Sound]

“Everybody is involved in this mission and everyone has to be for it to succeed,” Inslee said in an interview in his office Wednesday.

“These expenditures have to be done now. There are lots of things in life you can put off for a decade. This is not one of them … This is a one-time shot.”

He said he has confidence the public shares his love for the orcas and determination not to lose them as a species. Mother orca Tahlequah moved him and people around the world in July, as she swam more than 1,000 miles clinging to her dead calf. Prominently hanging on the wall of the governor’s office in the Capitol is the painting he made of Tahlequah.

Hostile Waters: Orcas in Peril


ABOUT THIS SERIES The Seattle Times’ “Hostile Waters” series explores and exposes the plight of the southern resident killer whales, among our region's most-enduring symbols and most-endangered animals. We’ll examine the role humans have played in their decline, what can be done about it and why it matters.

While his connection to whales is one he feels in his heart, Inslee said, it is also one he understands as rooted in ecology. From reducing toxins in the water to boosting salmon in the rivers, “When we are taking care of Tahlequah, we are taking care of us,” Inslee said.

His proposals include:

Nearly $363 million in the capital budget for salmon recovery, culvert removal, water-quality and water-supply projects around the state.

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$296 million in the Washington State Department of Transportation budget for culvert repairs to respond to a federal-district court injunction requiring the work, a judgment affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

$12 million to boost hatchery production of chinook, the orcas’ primary food much of the year.

$750,000 to support evaluation by a task force of breaching the Lower Snake River dams as a way to increase chinook for southern resident orcas. The group is directed to examine the economic and social costs and benefits and ways to mitigate breaching effects for shippers, irrigators, utilities, ports, tribes, fishermen and others.

“We have not had a robust discussion on how to replace services by the dams,” Inslee said. “We just need to get the facts … I know this is a controversy, but I believe the times demand a discussion.”

Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, and Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, released a joint statement Thursday opposing the task-force proposal.

“The Governor does not have the authority to breach our federal dams on the Lower Snake River, and allocating state taxpayers’ funds to consider breaching them would be wasteful,” the two stated. “Congress has the sole authority to authorize breaching our federal dams, and as representatives of Eastern Washington communities that depend on the many benefits they provide, breaching them is out of the question. We commit to do everything in our power to save our dams.”

Elliot Mainzer, administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), which markets power from the federal hydropower system, said the agency welcomes examination of breaching and is already deeply involved in a review of river operations with other agencies, in an environmental review before a federal judge.

“We look forward to working with the state of Washington, other cooperating agencies and the broader public, to complete this important process that is evaluating an alternative of breaching Snake River dams,” Mainzer said.

Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the nonprofit Save Our Wild Salmon, said the panel presents “an opportunity to separate fact from fiction, and understanding the kind of choices that would be involved.”

The governor also is requesting $580,000 for a three-year rule-making process to allow increased spill of water over the Columbia and Lower Snake River dams.

Spill is intended to speed travel of young salmon to the sea and to lower water temperatures that in summer are proving lethal to salmon. That measure is controversial because it affects the ability of the BPA to generate and sell power at the dams.

“We have to increase chinook and the Columbia is no small part of that,” Inslee said. “It is not the only thing we need to improve, but it is a significant part,” he said.

“This is the best short-term thing we have,” said Inslee, estimating increased spill would generate on average 146,000 more adult chinook coming back to the river.

“It is a modest reduction of electrical production but it is an investment worth making, and we think the science is credible enough to move forward.”

Mainzer, the BPA administrator, said he supports spill that optimizes salmon survival.

“We share Gov. Inslee’s concerns about orcas and we are encouraged by work actively underway with Washington state, Oregon and the region’s tribes to develop an approach to increase spill which can better optimize for salmon survival and preserve affordable carbon-free hydroelectric generation for the region’s electricity consumers,” he said.

The spill proposal concerned Joel Myer, spokesman for Mason County Public Utility District No. 3 in Shelton, Mason County. From possible costs increases for power supply to effects on the fish, increasing spill is something to look at with care, Myer said.

“It is a good thing it is a long [Legislative] session.”

Inslee is also calling for a ban on whale-watching of southern resident orcas to last for three years. It would be in addition to a permanent increase in the distance all boats and vessels must maintain from southern resident orcas from 200 to 400 yards, and a new 7 knot or less go-slow zone for all vessels within a half-nautical mile of southern residents.

A limited entry-permit system for commercial vessels and kayaks would also be established.

The purpose of the new regulations — which the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife would receive $1.1 million to enforce — is to quiet the water to help the southern residents find the fish they need.

“I thought a lot about this and concluded the general approach was a safe and prudent one that errs on the side of survival,” Inslee said.

The whale-watch industry spends up to 85 percent of its time with customers watching other whales, Inslee said. “We will still have a robust whale-watching industry.”

Jeff Friedman, U.S. President of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, opposed the moratorium.

“Whale-watching and responsible no/low-impact ecotourism is critical to education and conservation efforts that we all are engaged in to protect all whales in the Salish Sea,” Friedman said in a prepared statement. Friedman did support the go-slow zone.

Inslee said the temporary ban on watching southern residents was a “relatively small inconvenience to give them a break. … Someone who is starving should not be scrambling for that last morsel that can keep them alive.”