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A new film argues Lower Snake dams make life worse for salmon, orcas and everyone in the PNW

As the documentary Dammed to Extinction tours the Northwest, its filmmakers argue time isn't up for orcas or salmon if we act now.

Southern resident killer whales swim in the Puget Sound. (Photo by Peterson Hawley Productions/Dammed to Extinction)

Puget Sound’s orca population is starving. Between runoff that creates marine pollution, ocean noise that makes it hard to hunt and rapidly declining runs of the salmon that dominate their diet, the southern resident killer whales face grim prospects. 

The world has taken notice. But despite numerous governmental and academic reports, international news articles and public demonstrations, the total number of whales in the three Puget Sound pods has declined from 98 at the time of their listing as an endangered species in 1995 to 73 this month. 

Filmmakers Michael Peterson and Steven Hawley hope a new documentary can make a difference. The two Pacific Northwesterners premiered Dammed to Extinction at SIFF on May 9 in Seattle to viewers galvanized by last summer’s footage of mourning whale mother Tahlequah carrying her dead calf for 17 days through Puget Sound. 

The pair have been working for 4½ years on the 51-minute film, which is based on a book Hawley wrote and made in partnership with the nonprofit Center for Whale Research. It explores both the majesty and plight of orcas before pivoting to a controversial solution: Keeping the whales alive means immediately increasing their access to chinook salmon, and many advocates say the best way to do that is by tearing down four dams in the Columbia River System. 

In the film, respected orca researchers like Wild Orca’s Dr. Deborah Giles and Center for Whale Research’s Dr. Ken Balcomb join a cast of devoted and often eccentric whale advocates to argue that dams in the Lower Snake River are both unnecessary for humans and lethal to fish. They reduce available habitat, raise water temperatures and loom as concrete-and-turbine hurdles to migrating salmon from the Columbia’s upper headwaters in British Columbia to its mouth in southwestern Washington. The filmmakers claim the dams also displaced and disempowered indigenous communities all along the Columbia. 

Scientists like Balcomb believe tearing down the four Lower Snake dams offers salmon recovery the biggest “bang for their buck.” Economists, fish advocates and retired state fishery personnel claim in the film that the dams provide mostly surplus energy and consequently are obsolete. Meanwhile, the filmmakers profile the people and fish whose lives were made harder by the dams’ construction. It’s a film that explores the American instinct to industrialize at all costs and the species we sacrifice when we attempt to harness natural resources. 

snake river watershed
Image courtesy of Peterson Hawley Productions/Dammed to Extinction.

The filmmakers, who both live along the Columbia River, returned to Seattle for a screening last week, just as orcas surfaced in the news again. Days ago, the Center for Whale Research announced the presumed deaths of matriarch J17 and males K25 and L84. Seven of the eight reservoirs in the Columbia system are hotter than 68 degrees Fahrenheit, effectively baking vulnerable juvenile salmon. And consulting agency EconNorthwest just released a study for Vulcan that found removing the dams would create a net-positive economic impact on the region.

With their film, Peterson and Hawley have established themselves as key interpreters of the politics of endangerment and the places where people and nature clash.

Crosscut caught up with them ahead of their second Seattle screening at Patagonia’s downtown store to discuss their message and how this issue has resonated with people in the region since their premiere. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Why did you choose Seattle for the premiere? 

Hawley: It’s really the epicenter of this issue. I feel like in some ways this is a story about the haves and the have-nots. Seattle's a growing urban area, for young people particularly, one of the more sought out places to settle down and, on the other hand, what is the cost of that development? We're seeing the ecosystem of the Salish Sea suffer. One of the reasons people find it so attractive here is because you have the urban on one side and this relatively wild intact ecosystem with these crazy large apex predators on the other. How much longer are they gonna be around at this point is kind of the question.

Between everything impacting orcas and salmon in the Pacific Northwest, why did these dams capture your interest?

Peterson: [Between] unfavorable oceanic conditions and lack of habitat and predation and warm water — there's a lot of different reasons the salmon aren't doing well, but absolutely the biggest thing we could do to restore them is to remove those dams. 

Hawley: Michael bought a house right above [the now-removed] Condit Dam on the White Salmon River, so as the process of sketching out this movie was going on, he was watching what was happening to that river [as a result of the dam’s removal] literally from the deck of his house. We just fished there last week. And it was absolutely stunning to see what was literally a mud pit in the fall of 2011 turning to this beautiful trout and salmon stream, you know? 

Peterson: I have watched salmon spawn right next to my house, where they haven’t been in a hundred years. So I've seen how positive dam removal can be. Ironically, it's kind of a miniature version of the four Lower Snake River dams. Those dams don't make sense economically either. 

Why are scientists focused on the four Lower Snake River dams out of the total eight? 

Hawley: Economically, those are the most dispensable of the eight, and biologically they're the most damaging. 

Peterson: The Snake has less water flow, and it's in Eastern Washington, where the temperature gets really hot behind those reservoirs. So the Columbia can handle a little slowdown of water better than the Snake can. 

You've been screening this film all across the Pacific Northwest — have you had different reactions to it throughout the state? 

Hawley: Spokane brought out surprisingly the most vocal and even irreverent audience that we had. They were openly pro-dam removal, booing some of their own congressional reps when their images came up on screen. 

Peterson: Which goes to show it's not an east-west thing, it's not a Republican-Democrat thing. It's doing the right thing. [The response] has been overwhelmingly positive for our message, which is: Removing the Lower Snake River dams will help save the orcas and definitely will restore the salmon runs. We've had very few negative responses to the film yet, which is surprising to me. 

Did you realize your film would have the international relevance that it does?

Hawley: It's a heartbreaking story. When we started making the film, the whales were in much better shape than they are now. So a year ago, when we were watching footage of orca Tahlequah push her dead calf around, that was hard for both of us to watch that. We didn't anticipate that the decline of the southern residents and [that] people's very emotional response to that would become part of the film and part of the response to screening the film, and it has. And I think, as filmmakers, as unfortunate as that is for the southern residents, the timing of our film in that respect maybe couldn't be better, because they're out of time. If we're gonna do something, it's gonna have to be as soon as our political system will allow it to happen. 

You had many experts across different fields telling you one thing about dam removal, but not all scientists and policymakers agree. What was the process for you, of figuring out who to trust? 

Hawley: I have been following this issue for a decade now, and it took me a long time to figure out which information to trust. 

Two things: One was follow the money. It’s gotten to the point where, if you just tell me the authors of a study and who's funding it, I can tell you pretty reliably what their conclusions are going to be. And that goes for NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], too. 

The other thing is I think there's something to be said for scientists that have an affinity for the creatures they've spent their careers studying. And I think it's really impossible to spend 10, 20 or, in the case of Ken Balcomb, 40 years studying these animals without developing a real affinity for their habits, literally who they are.

Ken gave us unrestricted access to himself and his archives. To be able to go in and have access to all that archival footage [was huge]. 

How did you fund the movie? 

Peterson: We've been struggling to make this film for four years. We've been doing it on our credit cards. and if it weren’t for the generous donations form the Ruth Foundation and help from the Center [for Whale Research], we might not have gotten it going. 

We're far from having the film paid for. We're still really quite a long way in the red. But they gave us enough money to at least get it out.

How do you feel about the growing awareness and momentum since the premiere?

Hawley: It's a double-edged sword. I'm elated at people's response to this, and their compassion for the whales and to get the dams down, but it's an emotional roller coaster following this issue because both the salmon and whales are reaching biological deadlines for us to do anything about their predicament.

Peterson: I’m elated, like Steven said, but I also feel surprised because I didn't think we'd make this much progress.

People from over here [in Seattle] watch the film and read about these dams and think, “Oh my goodness, it's a no brainer. There's no reason not to take them out.” But if you grew up next to those massive concrete structures, you can't imagine them being torn down. 

I grew up in Richland, a conservative town right on a reservoir. I was pretty ignorant of the damage those dams do. But they made electricity that helped us make the aluminum that built bombers for World War II. These are part of the society and the culture and the thought of them being gone, I never thought that I’d see it in my lifetime. 

I’m blown away, honestly, that we have a Republican congressman [Mike Simpson of Idaho], who's actually said, “We're gonna look into [breaching the dams].” That it makes national, international news. 

The officials you spoke with were all retired, and while you did have video showing Bonneville Administrator Elliot Mainzer commenting on the Bonneville Power Administration’s fragile financial situation, you didn’t show interviews with anyone currently in a regulatory or scientific capacity who was for keeping the dams. Was it difficult to find those people?

Hawley: They won't talk on record. The culture of our federal government currently has become so oppressive — I guess there's no other word for it — that agency scientists simply are not allowed to talk on record. We had people who wanted to, but they knew what the consequences would be, right? 

What did you learn about orca or fish behavior through this project that surprised you?

Hawley: The thing that’s most astonishing to me is the familial and emotional ties whales have to one another. Cetaceans have a fourth lobe in their brains devoted to processing emotions, so it's quite possible that they are emotionally more sophisticated than us. You can certainly see that in their interactions both with each other and with people lucky enough to experience that.

What human stories really affected you? 

Hawley: Carrie Schuster's family land was drowned behind Ice Harbor Dam. Her tribe, the Palouse, prior to that had been on this 150-year diaspora because they never signed a treaty and were just sort of considered a nonentity. So she spent the first half of her life trying to keep those cultural ties together, and at least the last decade of her life working on getting the dams down, so [that] there will be some vestige of her culture's way of life left for her sons and daughters and grandchildren. That's mind-blowing. I never thought I would find a character like that when I started. 

Can you talk to me about your choice to include a call to action at the end of the film?

Hawley: I think it's been hard for me to approach this issue because it's personal enough for me that I have a hard time being “reporterly” and objective about it. And because I'm a reporter, I also have a streak of cynicism in me. But the reality is the only way that this situation is going to change is if people [do something] — whether it's calling your senator, organizing a screening of the film, attending a protest. It's the only option we have to change things, and it's the only way things have ever changed. In a worst-case scenario, even if we lose the orcas, we may gain something in terms of our cohesion as a democracy, as a community, as people. Then it won't have been all for nothing. 

Is there any hope in the forecast for what could happen? 

Hawley: Currently it's grim, but salmon are incredibly resilient creatures. These whales are not here in the Salish Sea because they're out in the Pacific looking for fish. And as long as they're looking for fish and finding enough of them to stay alive, I think, as filmmakers and as citizens and advocates and people who love living here and love those critters, we're obliged to keep fighting on their behalf.

What’s the best way to get someone involved in this issue? 

Hawley: I think the most meaningful thing you can do for salmon or whales is to go take a look at them. I think once most folks lay their eyes on a salmon in Idaho that's traveled 1,000 miles to spawn in the upper reaches of the Salmon River basin, or an orca breaching out in the Sound, that's inspiring. And then the next steps to take are kind of self-evident after that.

Peterson: You make your voice heard, you vote, you put on a silly orca outfit and walk to the Capitol. Or support one of these organizations we have listed on our website. 

You max out your credit card to get a film made. 

Hawley: Right.

Peterson: Exactly. 

Update: On August 13th at 10:00 p.m., we adjusted language to clarify the location of the Condit Dam.

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A new film argues Lower Snake dams make life worse for salmon, orcas and everyone in the PNW

About the Authors & Contributors

Hannah Weinberger

Hannah Weinberger is a reporter at Crosscut focused on science and the environment.