The plight of orcas has everything to do with our water supply

By Ander Russell, clean water program manager at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities

I have always had a soft spot for predators. Us wildlife biology majors called animals like bears, wolves and orcas “charismatic megafauna.”
When I moved to the Puget Sound region 22 years ago and first saw orcas in the wild, it blew my mind. I have seen them hunt humpback whales in the waters of southeast Alaska, and throw their salmon dinner around them in play here in Puget Sound.

Recently, I joined many of you and people around the world, watching with dismay and empathy as the mother orca, Tahlequah carried her dead newborn calf on her head for a week. Then two weeks. It would slip off her head, she’d dive to catch it, and rise up again, at last releasing the calf’s disintegrating body after 17 days.
This unprecedented behavior has countless interpretations. I call it grief.

On the periphery of the spotlight shone on Tahlequah, J50 – another of the 75 remaining Southern Resident orcas – was found on the brink of starvation, bones protruding from her head. Lummi Nation tribal members, scientists and others mobilized to feed her Chinook salmon, orcas’ most important food source, with limited success. Her chance of survival is still unknown.

Although their collective plight is telling and visceral, this isn’t just a story about orcas. This is a story about water and everything that happens upstream, in cities, in rivers and creeks, before that water joins with the Salish Sea. And it has everything to do with the hot, dry, smoky weeks we just experienced.

Water equals food
Endangered southern resident orcas face three primary threats: exposure to toxic pollution, increasing vessel traffic, and a dwindling supply of Chinook salmon to eat. The last is the trickiest to address.

The first two threats often get the lion’s share of attention. Toxins that stay in the environment for decades, even ones banned years ago like PCBs, climb up the food chain and build up in orca tissue. Large, loud ships going through orca habitat cause them to stay on the move, eating and communicating less, as they have trouble locating prey amid the competing noise – not to mention the risk of oil tankers spilling.

That brings us to salmon. They, too, face a swath of contaminants in both their river and ocean homes, but they face an even more basic, challenge: even in the rainy Pacific Northwest, there is very little water in many streams during the summer. Salmon get stranded, without a way to reach important spawning grounds, keeping their populations low.

Those low numbers cannot adequately feed the Salish Sea’s orcas while also keeping our fishing economy and tribal fisheries thriving. Summer is when water is also in greatest demand by agricultural and household users.

Ever since settlers’ westward expansion, whenever human interests (seemingly) compete with those of salmon, endangered salmon often get the short end of the stick. But their needs are our needs, and orcas’ needs: abundant, cool, clean water.

Summer is a season of extremes. It means more outdoor recreation and bountiful food production. It also means wildfires, heat waves, and water shortages across the American West, which are worsening with climate change. And even though we get lots of rain the rest of the year, we are not exempt from drought. To salmon, having enough cold, clean water to travel and reproduce in is as basic a need to us as clean air. And right now, nearly all of the watersheds that feed the Nooksack River – and ultimately, northern Puget Sound – don’t meet the state’s minimum streamflow standards for salmon health.

No easy fix, but plenty of tools
With a growing population and warming planet, our water supply problem will continue to get worse if we don’t fix it now – for orcas, for the salmon they rely on, for the people that rely on salmon, and for farms who rely on irrigation water. The good news is it’s entirely within our power to work together and find solutions that make sense for Whatcom County.

By addressing the disadvantages orcas and salmon face, we are also solving human problems. Even if our orcas and Chinook salmon were thriving, it is vital to make sure our local water supply is balanced for farms, fish, and people who would serve us – and our grandchildren. People want to conserve water. Many of us conserve in our own homes and on our farms. We can use this shared desire to have enough water – and to have enough salmon for a thriving fishing economy and tribal fisheries – to earnestly collaborate with each other.

Our current system of managing water supply has not been successful at recovering wild salmon populations, and orcas and fisheries have paid the price. It is time to bring that balance back.

The overall solution might seem a little, well, dry: bring water users to the table and agree to use accurate, measurable scientific information to create future policies. Local solutions will be specific and unique – projects our community can really take ownership of, like protecting and restoring local wetlands to naturally release water over time, improving habitat for salmon in and along rivers and streams, incentivizing more efficient crop irrigation and indoor water systems, and all kinds of other creative ideas.
RE Sources and other environmental advocates are part of an effort known as the Watershed Resource Inventory Area 1 Planning Unit. This group of local and state governments, tribes, agriculture, private well owners, and others with a stake in our water, has existed since 1999. Since January, we have been working on a plan to address rural water use for the next 20 years. Rural water use is just one piece of the puzzle. If we are successful in coming up with that plan, I know we can look even bigger
picture and find solutions to increase stream flows in the Nooksack River and its tributaries while meeting the current and future water needs for Whatcom County.

If we should take one thing from the unprecedented behavior of Tahlequah, it is that things are out of balance. Returning to a place where we are all thriving will take equally unprecedented action, creativity, and dedication.

We must take a hard look at how, where, and when Whatcom County is using water. Status quo is no longer an option.
To learn more about the Planning Unit and efforts to restore stream flows in the Nooksack watershed, visit

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