Death Of Young Killer Whales Raises Worry About The Species’ Survival

Death Of Young Killer Whales Raises Worry About The Species’ Survival

By Craig Welch, The Seattle Times (TNS)

He’s trailed them and photographed them, mapped their family trees and counted their offspring, coming to identify individuals by their markings, sometimes even ascribing personalities based on behavior.

For much of the past 40 years, the dean of San Juan Island orca research has vacillated between hope and frustration about the future of Puget Sound’s southern resident killer whales.

But the death in December of J32, an 18-year-old orca known as Rhapsody — who was pregnant with a nearly full-term female calf — is pushing Ken Balcomb closer to despair.

“The death of this particular whale for me shows that we’re at a point in history where we need to wake up to what we have to consider: ‘Do we want whales or not?’ ” said Balcomb, who is with the Center for Whale Research.

With the 10th anniversary in 2015 of the government’s decision to protect these orcas under the Endangered Species Act, the numbers don’t look good.

The population of J, K and L pods has dropped from a high of 99 in 1995 to 77 in December, the lowest since 1985. No whale has given birth in more than two years — a first in the decades since the whales have been monitored. And the small number of female whales able and likely to give birth reduces the potential for a speedy rebound.

Scientists had hoped that young J32, who was just coming into adulthood, would help turn that pattern around for decades to come.

“We’ve not only lost her, but we’ve lost all of her future reproductive potential, which will potentially have an impact on the population,” said Brad Hanson, killer-whale expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “That’s disconcerting.”

The apparent cause of J32’s demise — an infection spread by the death of her unborn calf — leads Balcomb to suspect the worst. He thinks the whales’ chief source of food, chinook salmon, is in such short supply that J32 relied on its own blubber, releasing stored contaminants that harmed her immune and reproductive systems.

But officials overseeing whale recovery say it’s too soon to say the situation is dire. What caused the infection to spread is not yet clear. It’s not known if the lack of new births is a trend or anomaly. And whale numbers have been lower than this before and bounced back, suggesting to some that there is room for optimism.

After all, said Will Stelle, West Coast administrator for NOAA Fisheries, Snake River sockeye were so depleted in 1992 that only one fish — known as Lonesome Larry — returned to spawn in Idaho’s Redfish Lake. This year, after decades of work by scientists, 1,600 fish returned, nearly 500 of which were naturally spawned.

“That’s not to say the issues around Snake River sockeye are the same — they’re not,” Stelle said. “But if you look in the rearview mirror, you’ll see that in fact over the last decade we’ve made substantial progress in building the basic foundation for a long-term conservation strategy for southern residents. We’re by no means there. But a decade ago we were in the dark ages.

“This is not the time to light our hair on fire, or to run about saying ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling,’ ” he said. “What is really important here is to take the long view.”

But Stelle agreed that a central question remains: How much time do orcas have?

J32 was born into a family where adult females tended to die early. She was the first and, presumably, only calf of a 15-year-old whale that died two years after J32 was born. The matriarch of the family died a year after that at 37 — young for a species with a life span similar to humans.

Long before J32’s carcass was towed ashore on the east side of Vancouver Island near Comox, B.C., scientists had begun to wrestle with the role that the decline of salmon may be playing in whale survival.

“The reality is, the basic problem is food,” Balcomb said.

In the 1960s and 1970s, an orca population that a century earlier may have numbered from 140 to 200 was decimated by the aquarium trade. Entrepreneurs drove orcas into net pens in coves and sold them to marine parks around the world until there were only 71 left in 1974.

Only in the past 10 years have researchers documented their troubles.

“Since then we’ve improved our understanding of the individuals themselves, their population dynamics, their geographic distribution and diet and pollutant loading and contaminants and the effects of all that on productivity,” Stelle said.

But two of the whales’ three biggest problems — the buildup of pollutants such as DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls in their blubber, and disturbance by marine traffic — appear to be worsened by a third, a reduction in available prey.

These whales can eat sockeye and halibut, but overwhelmingly prefer fatty chinook from Puget Sound and Canada’s Fraser River, distinguishing them from other fish by using sonar to sense differences in the animals’ swim bladders. Puget Sound chinook numbers have dropped to about 10 percent of their historic high. They, too, are listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

When killer whales are hungry, research suggests, they may metabolize poisons built up in their fat over years, and expend energy they can’t afford to lose if they have to avoid disturbances from boats and other traffic.

Yet scientists continue to disagree on how much of a role that has played in any deaths. Few whales wash up dead for them to study. Among those that have, only one — Rhapsody’s uncle, J18 — offered clues that led some, but not all, to believe that hunger was a factor in his death.

Government scientists agree that a diminished food supply is a major issue. But they’re still running tests on J32’s organs, skin and fatty tissue to help narrow down her health issues more precisely.

“If southern residents are on a lower nutritional plane, then the effects of contaminants may be allowed to cause some sort of problem in a random way that disease events would be able to take over,” Hanson said. “But a lot of times what we’re seeing is these skinny animals and a lot of people say ‘these whales are starving to death.’ But it’s not that simple.”

For example, whales hunt in groups they sometimes share prey, and may give away food to others that they themselves could use.

Regardless of whether food availability helped trigger J32’s death, government researchers share some of Balcomb’s concerns about the state of the population.

“It’s not so much that there are fewer reproductive-age females now than there used to be,” said NOAA whale scientist Mike Ford, “but rather that they may not be giving birth as often as expected.”

To Balcomb, the loss of J32 suggests that it’s time to consider drastic measures, such as a ban or steep curtailment in chinook fishing, even though fishing is likely the least of the threats chinook face.

“It’s a wake-up call. We know what the problem is, whether it’s dams or fishing or habitat destruction,” he said. “It’s just what happens when millions of people move into the watershed. (But) stopping fishing, at least for a while, is something we can do immediately.”

Stelle, whose agency helps oversee chinook-harvest levels, said fishing has been curtailed already by about 30 percent in agreements with Canada, but he couldn’t conceive of a day when he’d seriously consider an outright ban, which would violate tribal-treaty rights. Still, he doesn’t rule out more drastic cuts.

Stelle, like most experts, maintains that one of the hardest problems to address for orcas is controlling stormwater so even more contaminants aren’t flushed into the Puget Sound, where they can work their way up the orca food chain. That is likely an expensive fix.

The other is reducing development in areas harmful to chinook survival — estuaries, floodplains, areas that alter drainage into river beds. But that problem is made ever more complex by the fact that dozens of government entities oversee the decision-making.

“The particular challenges I think that are daunting can best be illustrated by driving south on (Interstate 5) and looking around,” he said. “That built-out landscape fundamentally poses the most significant challenge for us. It is: How do we reconcile the continued human-population growth projected for the basin with trying to rebuild the productivity of the most important habitats for orcas and their prey.”

Martha Kongsgaard, who leads the Puget Sound Partnership, a government agency charged with cleaning up the Sound, agreed that J32’s death illustrates how much is at stake if the region doesn’t pick up the pace in tackling these problems.

“You don’t want to raise the alarm every time a whale dies, but I think we are really on the brink of possibly losing them,” she said. “And we ignore the orcas’ incredible totemic and symbolic power at our peril. They’re telling us it’s an emergency right now.

“The death of this particular whale for me shows that we’re at a point in history where we need to wake up to what we have to consider: Do we want whales or not?

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists Say Climate Change Means Sicker World For Sea Life

Scientists Say Climate Change Means Sicker World For Sea Life

By Craig Welch, The Seattle Times (TNS)

SEATTLE — The shellfish pathogen that hit California’s Channel Islands in the 1980s began to quickly kill one of the tideland’s most important animals — black abalone.

But what unnerved scientists was what they learned next: Whenever ocean waters grew warmer, the deadly infection known as withering syndrome spread and killed even more abalone.

By the 2000s, this phenomenon had helped transform black abalone into an endangered species — and a symbol of how much climate change may one day influence the spread of marine diseases.

Long before a virus would kill West Coast sea stars by the millions, scientists had begun to wonder when a major human-caused marine-disease outbreak would strike. Now they’re wondering if so-called sea-star wasting disease is an example of the threat they predicted, or just part of a natural cycle they don’t yet understand.

This month, scientists announced they had identified the culprit responsible for a mass die-off of 20 species of starfish that started in Washington last year, and then spread to Southern California and north to Alaska. The cause was a virus that had been found in sea stars since at least the 1940s. But it had never killed anywhere nearly as many creatures or across so vast an area.

It’s too soon to say whether the sudden explosion of this starfish disease is linked to environmental changes wrought by humans, such as global warming or ocean acidification, which is the souring of seas by carbon-dioxide emissions.

But scientists say the die-off may be the most extensive marine-disease event ever documented. Few experts believe it will be the last.

“The most dire interpretation of the sea-star event is that it could just be the first in a wave of similar events,” said Bruce Menge, a marine-biology professor at Oregon State University.

From work with corals and eelgrass, dolphins, seals and fish, researchers increasingly are finding that climate change is likely to affect disease susceptibility and transmission in a many important ways.

“A warmer world is a sicker world,” said C. Drew Harvell, a marine epidemiologist and coral-disease expert from Cornell University who has played a key role in studying the sea-star die-off. “A warming world can cause disease to increase, both by compromising the host and because a lot of microorganisms become more virulent or are happier at warmer temperatures.”

A parasite that affects East Coast oysters offers one of the clearest examples of how a warming world may change ocean diseases.

The pathogen can kill masses of oysters but was rarely seen north of the Chesapeake Bay. Then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a warm-water system allowed the parasite to quickly spread from Maryland to Cape Cod, Mass., and beyond. There, it infected more oysters faster than before and killed them far quicker.

Many pathogens tend to get knocked back by cold winters. But as the marine world continues to warm, their survivability and suitable habitat just expands.

“In my opinion, we’re going to see more infectious-disease outbreaks in the ocean,” said Colleen Burge, a research associate at the University of Washington and lead author of a major study of ocean pathogens published last year.

And as climate change and ocean acidification alter the food chain, the growth of plants and animals, and the timing of their interactions, those factors also will affect how diseases spread.

“Any organism that is going to be under more stress or has fewer numbers or lower genetic diversity is going to be more highly susceptible,” Burge said.

One place where that’s already true is the Caribbean, where disease has hit more than two-thirds of coral reefs.

“There’s been a big uptick in these infectious diseases that are affecting coral, and the impacts are really huge,” Harvell said. “Partly that’s because corals live so close to their upper thermal limits that any kind of warming puts them over the edge.”

So when corals experience warm waters, sometimes they jettison the algae that gives them color, turning them white in a process known as bleaching. That in turn, can make them more vulnerable to disease.

During one warm-water period off the Florida Keys in 2005, corals that experienced bleaching were more likely to soon become infected with deadly white-plague disease.

Meanwhile, ocean acidification is expected to make it harder for corals to grow, which may reduce some corals’ ability to fight off infection.

Sometimes it isn’t a weakened host that’s the problem, but a more virulent bug.

Many coral diseases, parasites and fungal infections also spread more rapidly when waters warm, sometimes up to 14 times more rapidly.

Bacterial infections also have been known to cause coral bleaching. During that same warm period in Florida in 2005, corals and sea fans already suffering from splotchy purple or gray patches known as dark-spot disease were found to be more likely to bleach than healthy corals.

And sometimes the spread is more complicated as the fabric of an ecosystem changes. Thirty years ago a disease wiped outblack sea urchins in an area of the Caribbean. Without the urchins to consume plant life, algae took over 90 percent of leaflike elkhorn corals and branching staghorn corals. Warming temperatures have so beaten back remaining corals that the environment and all that lives there has been completely transformed.

Predicting how and where these issues might surface is inherently difficult. Just as climate change alters the environment in complex but fundamental ways, diseases, too, are influenced by many factors. And it can take years before the important ones are understood.

Scientists worry about the sea-star die-off because starfish play an important role in tidal environments. Their absence will fundamentally change how those near-shore areas function.

But the difficulty in understanding what triggered the sea-star virus to suddenly become so deadly this time is that little about the outbreak has been consistent.

In some areas in British Columbia, sea stars had become so abundant that researchers wondered if the virus somehow was just working as a natural check to keep sea-star numbers down. But in other regions, starfish numbers were already way down.

“We certainly have some populations where they were arm to arm to arm, but if you go back and look, it wasn’t necessarily those high-density sites that were hit first,” said Ben Miner, a Western Washington University professor who has tracked the sea-star epidemic.

In addition, some sites with few sea stars still were hit again.

Researchers have seen some relationship between the starfish outbreak and warm waters. But the disease hit Oregon when waters were cool and spread into Alaska just as summer turned to fall.

Menge suspects acidification may have played a role, because the death of sea stars in Oregon often corresponded to times when winds drew waters to shore from down deep. Those waters — already naturally rich in carbon dioxide — now are more sour than they used to be, thanks to the absorption of fossil-fuel emissions from the atmosphere.

Other scientists believe it could be a combination of several factors at once.

The one thing most agree on now is that it will take time to figure out, and may never be entirely understood. And the same could prove true with future marine outbreaks.

“We all want it to be something that’s really clear,” Burge said, “but with diseases, it often just is not.”

Photo: John Brooks, National Park Service photographer, via Wikimedia Commons

Once-Common Marine Birds Disappearing From Pacific Northwest Coast

Once-Common Marine Birds Disappearing From Pacific Northwest Coast

By Craig Welch, The Seattle Times

ANACORTES, Wash. — The bird-counters stood in the windy bow chattering into headsets and scanning the Strait of Juan de Fuca with binoculars.

“Scoters,” Sherman Anderson said. “Three of them. At 11 o’clock. Look like surfs.”

“Marbled murrelets,” he added seconds later. “I see two.”

Inside the boat’s cabin, another Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife worker listened through a headset of his own so he could record the tally on a computer.

Bird surveys like this and others done by plane are tracking a significant ecological shift in our region — a major decline in once-abundant marine birds. From white-winged scoters and surf scoters to long-tailed ducks, murres, loons, and some seagulls, the number of everyday marine birds here has plummeted dramatically in recent decades.

Scoters are down more than 75 percent from what they were in the late 1970s. Murres have dropped even more. Western grebes have mostly vanished, falling from several hundred thousand birds to about 20,000.

The reasons often vary — from climate change and shoreline development to marine pollution and the rebound of predators such as bald eagles.

But several new studies now also link many dwindling marine bird populations to what they eat — especially herring, anchovies, sand lance, and surf smelt, the tiny swimmers often dubbed forage fish.

The relationship between marine birds and slick, fatty forage fish is complex. Some birds are here year-round while others pass through for just a few months. Some birds key in solely on silvery herring while others can just as easily eat flounder.

Some forage-fish species, such as herring, are a fraction of what they once were. But little information exists about the health of other species. But an exhaustive new analysis of bird diets and population trends found that marine birds relying exclusively on fish like herring were up to 16 times more likely to be in trouble than birds that ate nonschooling bottom-dwellers like sculpin.

“The result was remarkably strong,” said study author Ignacio Vilchis, formerly with the SeaDoc Society at the University of California, Davis. “It showed that it’s the diving birds that go after forage fish which are much more likely to have a declining trend.”

There’s certainly no shortage of crashes to evaluate. Five years ago one study showed the overall bird numbers in Puget Sound and British Columbia’s Georgia Strait were down 30 percent from the late 1970s. In Puget Sound alone, marine bird numbers have been cut in half.

Biologists for years have tried to understand why the change hit so many species at once. But only recently have they really started to examine some of the systemic shifts that may cause or exacerbate declines.

“It’s one thing to have a rare species decline,” said Joe Gaydos, with the SeaDoc Society. “But we’re not talking about a few plovers. We’re talking about big, common species, and a lot of them.”

There is no easier way to view this decline than through the once-ubiquitous Western grebe.

These black and white ducklike birds with their long necks and thin beaks settle in winter in colonies on lakes from southwest Canada to California but gather their food from marine waters.

While the bulk of that population once centered on Washington and lower British Columbia, sightings of larger flocks of grebes are unusual enough that when it happens “birders will talk about it on the Internet for days,” Gaydos said.

At first it wasn’t clear whether this was a local or continental-scale problem, said Scott Wilson, a biologist with Environment Canada. It’s both: Up and down the West Coast, the winter breeding population is half what it was in 1975.

But something else was going on, too.

While Puget Sound and lower B.C. declines top 95 percent, grebe populations in parts of California have tripled. The center of the bird’s range shifted 550 miles south.

“Food is one of the key resources species need to survive,” Wilson said. And grebes rely on forage fish.

In Puget Sound, the biggest stock of herring used to reside at Cherry Point, south of Bellingham. But since 1970 that herring stock has crashed, with more than 90 percent of the population all but gone.

The loss of herring probably drove grebes away, Wilson hypothesized, but it also did so just as sardine stocks were recovering to the south. Down to a few thousand metric tons in 1985, sardine populations in California have since exploded to more than 2 million metric tons, providing an alternative food for hungry grebes.

“The grebes were tracking this very large-scale change — the combined change to herring in the north and sardines in the south,” Wilson said. “And Western grebes are quite mobile.”

Changes in other bird populations, too, could to some degree be related to changes in forage fish.

Surf scoters, which primarily eat mussels and small crabs, also sometimes turn to herring eggs during spring migration. In 1978, bird surveyors counted 40,000 scoters near where herring were spawning. But in 2004 and 2005, surveyors counted fewer than 1,000 birds in the same location.

Some researchers suspect that since the herring spawn moves from year to year, bird counters probably missed quite a few scoters. But experts believe the general trend of decline is real.

“I think the herring absolutely did play a role in the scoter decline, but exactly what that role is, we just don’t know,” said Joe Evenson, of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.”

At that time of year, scoters are eating roe because they’re storing up a lot of fat and that can help determine whether they are successful at breeding. But I think there’s not just one thing that contributed to the scoter collapse.”

Meanwhile, the chief threat to marbled murrelets is still believed to be logging in their breeding grounds high in ancient Douglas fir forests. But some researchers have suggested that along the coast, murrelets are being forced to abandon their fatty fish diets and are eating less-nutritious fish lower in the food chain — especially just before the important period when they mate.

At the same time, some scientists believe the herring problem itself may be far worse than others acknowledge.

Forage fish, particularly herring, are supposed to be so abundant they are eaten by almost everything, including hake, dogfish, and sea lions and whales.

“They are the central node of the marine ecosystem,” said Iain McKechnie, a coastal archaeologist with the University of British Columbia. “They aren’t the base, they aren’t the top, but they are the thing through which everything else flows.”

Photo: Seattle Times/MCT/Steve Ringman

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Despite Decade Of Protection, Puget Sound Orcas Still In Trouble

Despite Decade Of Protection, Puget Sound Orcas Still In Trouble

By Craig Welch, Los Angeles Times

SEATTLE — In the decade since Puget Sound’s southern resident killer whales were protected under the Endangered Species Act, scientists have figured out where they go in winter, learned that they eat mostly chinook, and have documented the many ways orcas shift their behavior in response to noise from boats.

Despite that vast increase in knowledge since the cetaceans were listed as endangered in 2005, the region’s orca population — already a fraction of what it was in the 1960s — still is not growing, according to a new synopsis of research on the troubled whales by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Scientist are “trying to understand … why the whales haven’t increased more than they have,” said Mike Ford, with the conservation biology program at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Back in the early 1970s, when Puget Sound’s killer whales were still being captured for sale to marine parks, there were only 71 orcas left. Capture was outlawed a few years later, and orca populations climbed to 99 in the mid-1990s. As of last year, only 82 remain.

Scientists have tried to understand the factors contributing to their decline, and have confirmed that there are three major drivers — a decline in their food, the build up of pollutants in their system, and disturbance by boats.

But understanding all the subtle ways these and other changes in the marine world affect Puget Sound whales continues to be complex.

For example, while contaminants tend to build up in the bodies of whales, making them some of the most polluted animals on Earth, not all pollution is the same.

“They pick up contaminants from where they’re going,” Ford said. “L and K pods tend to pick up California-type contaminants, compared to J pod doesn’t, and that’s consistent with their distribution.”

Meanwhile, as these orcas decline, other marine mammals in the Northwest that also rely on fish — seals, sea lions, even other killer whale populations — actually are on the rise. A population of northern resident killer whales, which have the same diet and share portions of the southern residents’ environment, has tripled to nearly 300 since the 1960s.

In fact, “it’s possible that some of those increases influence the rate at which southern resident populations grow,” Ford said.

But many mysteries remain. For starters, when killer whales die, they rarely wash up on the beach for researchers to find and study, said Lynne Barre, the head of protected resources for NOAA’s Seattle office.

Instead, they just disappear and scientists have no way of learning what caused their deaths.

And Brad Hanson, a whale expert with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said their behavior is often quite unpredictable.

“Why do they sometimes decide to turn out toward the ocean and stay there for two weeks?” he asked.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually Elder Who Fought For Treaty Rights, Dies At 83

Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually Elder Who Fought For Treaty Rights, Dies At 83

By Craig Welch, The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually elder and fisherman who served for more than half a century as the charismatic voice of Northwest tribes fighting to exercise their treaty rights, died early Monday, tribal officials and his family confirmed Monday.

Frank was 83.

“We are all stunned and not prepared for this,” said W. Ron Allen, Jamestown S’Klallam tribal chairman, who has worked with Frank since the early 1980s. “He was bigger than life. It’s a very sad day for all of us.”

Frank was first arrested for salmon fishing as a boy in 1945. He was beaten and jailed repeatedly as he and others staged “fish ins” demanding the right to collect Chinook and other salmon in their historical waters, as guaranteed under treaties when they ceded land to settlers in the 19th century. By the time celebrities like Marlon Brando showed up on the Nisqually River to assist them in 1964, the salmon wars had raged for decades.

In 1974, U.S. District Judge George Boldt affirmed the tribes’ right to half of the fish harvest — and the nation’s obligation to honor the old treaties. In 1993, another court decision extended that affirmation to the harvest of shellfish.

By then Frank already had become one of the nation’s most eloquent and influential tribal champions.

He fought in Olympia and Washington, D.C., to protect forests and salmon streams from excessive timber harvest and development. He battled in court, in endless public meetings and in private conversations with anyone who would listen. With his soft voice, strong handshake and endless stories, he disarmed senators and presidents.

“He wanted all these tribes to understand that if they worked together we could do anything,” his son, Willie Frank, said.

Gov. Jay Inslee called Frank not just a tribal leader but a state leader.

“We can’t overstate how long-lasting his legacy will be,” Inslee said in an interview. “He pushed the state when he needed to push the state. And he reminded the state when it needed reminding. His legacy is going to be with us for generations. My grandkids are going to benefit from his work.”

Steve Robinson, who worked side-by-side with Frank for 30 years, serving as his spokesman and writer starting in the mid-1980s, said Frank would never hesitate to do battle over what he believed. But he also had the instincts and skills of a diplomat.

Frank more than anyone else, Robinson said, could convince people that the way to prosperity was through a healthy environment, because Frank believed it. Robinson called “the greatest man I’ve ever known.”

“When he walked into the room, he just had such a power and presence,” Robinson said. “We would have visitors from Russia, Asia, South America, and he’d delight them all. He’d travel to Barrow or Kamchatka and kids would line up to see him. But he was always humble. He knew no strangers and hugged everybody.”

Pat Stevenson, the environmental manager for the Stillaguamish Tribe, said Frank was selfless, rather than focused on his own accomplishments, and always used words like “we” and “us” and “the tribes.”

“He was there to make it better for everybody,” Stevenson said.

Frank was a fighter to the very end, said his son, who woke his father around 6 a.m. Monday to get ready for another meeting.

Frank showered and dressed but when Willie went back to check in, his father was hunched over in bed.

“I asked him every day if he was feeling good, but he would never tell me if he wasn’t,” Willie said. “He wouldn’t want people to worry about him.”

Photo via Flickr

65-Foot Crack Found In Columbia River Dam

65-Foot Crack Found In Columbia River Dam

By Craig Welch, The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — A massive crack in a major Columbia River dam poses enough of a risk of dam failure that Grant County, Wash., authorities have activated an emergency-response plan.

Officials said there is no threat to the public from the crack in the Wanapum Dam, which is just downstream from where Interstate 90 crosses the river.

But utility managers are lowering water levels a total of 20 feet because they fear the structure otherwise could endanger inspectors trying to get a better handle on how seriously the dam is damaged.

“At this point we already know there’s a serious problem,” said Thomas Stredwick, spokesman for the Grant County Public Utility District (PUD). “We want to make sure the spillway is stable enough that inspectors are safe when inspecting it.”

Earlier this past week, an engineer noticed a slight irregular “bowing” above the spillway gates near where cars can drive across the dam.

When divers finally took a look under water they found a 2-inch-wide crack that stretched for 65 feet along the base of one of the dam’s spillway piers.

After analyzing the data gathered by the divers and plugging it into computer models, the PUD determined late Friday afternoon that the failure risk was high enough that they needed to officially start notifying other government agencies and downstream water users.

“This is a situation that’s really changing as more information becomes available,” Stredwick said. “But there’s no immediate threat to public safety.”

Wanapum, just below The Gorge Amphitheatre and the hamlet of Vantage, is in a rural area. Failure would primarily impact fisherman, orchardists, farmers, boaters — and, of course, power generation. Wanapum currently can generate more than 1,000 megawatts of power.

PUD officials have lowered the water 6 feet behind the dam since discovering the problem, leaving many boat ramps above the dam inaccessible.

Authorities plan to let water levels drop another 14 feet by Monday.

So far the PUD has been able to continue meeting all of its power needs, but Wanapum is such a big electricity generator the utility may ultimately have to turn to buying power on the open market.

Even if the dam doesn’t fail, the significance of the damage is likely to require extensive repairs and that, too, could impact the entire Columbia River system.

“All these dams coordinate to generate energy on a regional scope,” Stedwick said. “If Wanapum is impacted, that has impacts on dams up stream as well as below.”

Officials with the Bonneville Power Administration declined to comment on the potential impact to power generation because they did not want to unduly influence energy markets.

But Kevin Wingert, a BPA spokesman, said the immediate impact would be an increase in flow from Priest Rapids Dam downstream, which would temporarily exceed the low flows needed to protect chinook salmon redds (nesting holes) through the Hanford Reach area.

He expected flows to return to normal once the drawdown was completed.

Wanapum Dam was built in 1959 and is more than a mile long. The piers supporting its 10 spillway gates are each 65 feet wide, 126 feet tall and 92 feet deep.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Heavy Snow After Dry Weeks Unleashes Avalanche Fury In West

Heavy Snow After Dry Weeks Unleashes Avalanche Fury In West

By Craig Welch, The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — More than 24 hours after a 1,000-foot-long avalanche killed two in their party, a pair of severely injured backcountry skiers from Washington were plucked from the slopes of the Wallowas in Eastern Oregon on Wednesday.

During a frustrating, snowy day with low visibility, volunteers on snowmobiles, rescue crews on skis and in a Sno-Cat, and National Guard troops in helicopters struggled most of the day to figure out how to get the victims out of the backcountry and to a hospital.

After an unusually dry winter in much of the West, that same heavy snowfall is making for ever more treacherous conditions just as a holiday weekend approaches and outdoor enthusiasts finally see fresh powder piling up in the mountains.

“We’re definitely worried about the next few days,” said Scott Schell, program director for the Northwest Avalanche Center in Seattle. “We’ve got really dangerous conditions out there right now.”

In Colorado, Utah and Oregon, six people died in avalanches in five days. A father and son were injured Tuesday in a smaller slide just outside the ski area at Stevens Pass.

The Northwest Avalanche Center has issued a “range-wide” high avalanche warning throughout the Cascades in Washington and expects it could remain in place through the weekend. Even as the center’s experts have been out testing conditions, they’ve triggered small slides in normally mellow terrain.

“We have very atypical conditions right now,” Schell said. “There are a handful of weak layers that lie within the snowpack that were developed in this dry high pressure. And we’re getting a ton of new snow on top of that, which is kind of a recipe for avalanches.”

While snow conditions are vastly different between the arid cold Rockies and the moist Cascades, many places across the West are seeing similar high risks, with tons of fresh snow piling on top of weak layers. Some resorts in Colorado have seen 5 or 6 feet or more of new snow in just four days.

“We’d had a lot of snow come down over the weekend and another 8 inches fell while they were out there,” since the accident, Baker County Undersheriff Warren Thompson said of conditions in the Wallowa Mountains.

Details of precisely what happened during Tuesday’s deadly avalanche in northeast Oregon are still unclear.

But the Sheriff’s Office and the Wallowa Avalanche Center said a party of eight skiers, including two guides from Wallowa Alpine Huts in Joseph, Ore., were on a multiday backcountry skiing trip. The entire group was from Washington, and all were experienced skiers.

The Sheriff’s Office said the group was also experienced at digging test pits and evaluating avalanche terrain.

The slide hit near Little Eagle Creek, near Cornucopia Mountain in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, about noon Tuesday. Thompson said the fracture occurred above the skiers and above the 7,200-foot level, carrying snow about a fifth of a mile.

One of the guides and a client, from Seattle, were killed. A woman suffered two broken legs and a shoulder injury, while another man fractured his femur. Authorities have not yet released the victims’ names.

Thompson told The Associated Press that the injured woman was from Wenatchee and the man was from Snohomish. The rest of the visiting skiers were from Seattle.

Attempts to rescue the injured using helicopters piloted by National Guard troops from Idaho and Oregon failed Tuesday and again Wednesday as visibility worsened.

Instead, the victims were eventually packed into sleds and brought down the slope with ropes before being towed out of the area behind a Sno-Cat and snowmobile.

As darkness descended Wednesday, plans to have the victims airlifted to hospitals had to be abandoned. Authorities instead were planning to have ambulances meet the sleds in Halfway, Ore., and drive the injured to Richland, where they would be flown to a Boise, Idaho, hospital.

It’s not clear precisely what conditions were like in the area of the slide. But the Wallowa Avalanche Center late last week described conditions similar to those elsewhere in the West: Piles of new snow were not bonding well to the old surface.

Similar conditions in Colorado led to a slide that buried snowmobilers near Crested Butte on Sunday, killing one of them. Another avalanche caught two skiers who were outside the controlled areas at Keystone the same day. One of the skiers died.

The day before, another snowmobiler was killed in Utah, and the day before that, an avalanche buried and killed a Utah snowshoer.

With more and more people traveling in the backcountry, experts say it’s more important than ever that snow enthusiasts understand how much is not in their control while in the wild.

Dale Remsberg, the technical director of the American Mountain Guides Association in Colorado, who helps train guides, said there is no way to eliminate all risk.

Even when traveling with an experienced guide, clients need to understand avalanche and mountain safety and be able to evaluate the risks for themselves.

“One of the key things from the start when we teach guides is to make sure they teach their clients that there is no such thing as safe in an inherently risky environment,” Remsberg said. “There’s only so much you can do to control the forces at play in these environments.”

AFP Photo/Don Emmert