The state budget approved this week includes $750,000 to launch a two-year outreach effort over impacts of a possible breaching of four Lower Snake River dams to aid in salmon recovery.

The budget legislation calls for a “neutral third party” to develop a process for local, state, tribal, federal and other stakeholders to weigh in on the issues that would surround a decision to breach the four federal dams.

Chinook salmon are prime food of the southern resident orcas that frequent Puget Sound, and this statewide dialogue was one of the recommendations of a task force that Gov. Jay Inslee established last year to find ways to recover the population of these whales, which are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The federal government, through funding provided by the Bonneville Power Administration, bankrolls a wide-ranging regional effort to restore salmon runs.

The federal salmon recovery program has been the focal point of years of litigation, and the option of breaching the four Lower Snake River dams already is part of a court-ordered federal environmental review expected to be done by 2020.

Eastern Washington Republicans in Congress have come out in opposition to a state-financed effort to bring together stakeholders to review the impacts of the possible removal of the dams.

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“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,” they said in a joint statement released in December. “Congress has the sole authority … We commit to do everything in our power to save our dams.” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, and Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside.

But another Pacific Northwest Republican in Congress, Rep. Mike Simpson, of Idaho, last week said he supported a regional dialogue to rethink salmon restoration efforts that had failed to restore healthy runs of fish to his home state. He suggested that by thinking “outside the box,” there could be alternatives for grain shippers using barges and others that now benefit from the four Snake River dams.

“Make no doubt about it. I want salmon back in Idaho in healthy sustainable populations. Can this be done … I honestly don’t know if the willpower is in Congress to do it. But I will tell you, I’m hardheaded enough to try,” Simpson said at an April 23 conference at Boise State University.

Robb Krehbiel, of Defenders of Wildlife, said the hope — during the Washington stakeholder process — is to temporarily put aside the debate over whether the dams should be removed, and instead focus on how to address community needs should that happen.

“The intention is … to focus on who would be most impacted — positively and negatively — and what they want their future to look like,” Krehbiel said.

Krehbiel and other Northwest environmentalists also were encouraged by other steps the state Legislature took this year to help in salmon recovery.

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According to Krehbiel, the state budget includes $49.5 million to fund the three major salmon restoration projects in Western Washington ranked as high priorities by the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund. They include a dam removal on the middle fork of the Nooksack River, and restoring flood plains along the Dungeness and Cedar rivers.

The Legislature also approved a bill to reduce the impacts of vessel noise on orcas. Senate Bill 5577 increases the vessel buffer zone around orcas, and reduces speeds within a half nautical mile of the whales to 7 knots.

In another action, the Legislature moved to strengthen the state’s ability to prevent toxic pollution that affects public health or the environment. Senate Bill 5135 directs state regulators to develop a list of consumer products that are a significant source of chemicals designated as a priority concern by the Ecology Department.

The Ecology Department must then determine regulatory actions. That could include restricting or prohibiting the manufacture, distribution or sale of a priority chemical in a consumer product, according to a legislative summary of the bill.

“They [the Ecology Department] will have the authority, and the funding and the discretion to do this without waiting around for the Legislature,” said state Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge, a lead sponsor of the bill.