Making Waves Conversations: Anji Moraes

Anji Moraes. Photo credit: Amelia Schryba.

Laura Blackmore, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, speaks with Anji Moraes, senior program officer at Vulcan Inc. They discuss salmon recovery, the removal of obsolete dams in the Pacific Northwest, and how infrastructure can help with salmon recovery and climate change adaptation. This interview was recorded on March 23, 2021. 

Laura Blackmore: My name is Laura Blackmore and I’m the executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency formed to lead our region’s collective effort to protect and restore Puget Sound.

Our online magazine, Making Waves, features stories about the people working to protect and recover Puget Sound. For this issue of Making Waves, we’re holding a series of conversations with experts on themes related to Puget Sound recovery. These conversations include wide-ranging discussions about climate change, infrastructure and the environment, and environmental justice.

For this interview, I’m speaking with Anji Moraes, senior program officer at Vulcan Inc. She’s here on behalf of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, founded by Jody Allen and the late Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, which supports work to preserve ocean health, protect wildlife, combat climate change, and strengthen community.

Anji joined Vulcan in January 2013 where she has worked within community and environmental portfolios including climate change, and terrestrial and marine conservation. She currently leads strategy development, investigates new potential funding opportunities, and manages implemented conservation programming in the Pacific Northwest and Sub-Saharan Africa. She has developed and managed philanthropic giving in coral health, dam removal, illegal and unreported fishing, and habitat connectivity.

Anji, thank you so much for joining us today.

Anji Moraes: Laura, thanks for having me. It’s my pleasure.

Laura Blackmore: For our conversation, we’ll be discussing several Pacific Northwest dam removal projects that the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation helped fund. The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation provided funding for the Middle Fork Nooksack River Fish Passage project, the removal of the Pilchuck River Dam, and the removal of four dams in Oregon. These projects help improve salmon habitat in the Pacific Northwest. Why is salmon recovery a priority for the foundation?

Anji Moraes: Salmon are a priority for us for a number of reasons. They’re ecologically important as the keystone species in our region and they’re intrinsically linked with our culture and economy, and like many of our colleagues in the region and partners, we’re concerned with the plight that Pacific Northwest salmon face.

You probably know some salmon are at 10 percent of their historic abundance and the latest State of the Salmon report paints a pretty bleak picture on their recovery and future trends. Of particular concern to the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation is protecting biodiversity in the Pacific Northwest, including the Southern Resident Killer Whales, which are another endangered species in dire straits and whose populations are to near a 30-year low.

The Southern Residents are struggling with impacts from toxins and noise pollution, and there’s a lot we still don’t know, like how climate change might be a factor in their decline. We also know, while there’s no silver bullet that will save the Southern Residents, we do know that 80 percent of their diet is comprised of Chinook salmon and that lack of salmon is a huge issue. Increasing the supply of Chinook is an important piece of the puzzle and it’s one of the reasons that salmon recovery is important to us at the foundation.

Laura Blackmore: How do you think the removal of obsolete dams in the Puget Sound region can help us preserve biodiversity and address the risks of climate change?

Anji Moraes: Salmon have shown themselves to be quite resilient, but they face a myriad of threats. One way to increase their chance of survival is by providing them access to cool, clean waters and the habitats that they need to thrive.

A pretty straightforward way of doing that is by reestablishing ecosystem connectivity. Also opening up access to cooler waters at higher elevation habitats is becoming increasingly important as we start to experience the effects of climate change, such as increased stream temperatures, which adversely affect our cool-water-loving salmon.

In the past few years, we’ve seen ecosystems come back to life, such as what happened with the removal of the Elwha, and we feel it’s important to act now. The Paul Allen Family Foundation partnered with American Rivers, and the Tulalip Tribes, and many others to support the removal of six dams—two in Washington and four in Oregon.

There’s a pretty wide range between these dams, in terms of location and function and appearance, but all told, the projects will restore about 73 miles of Chinook habitat access and over a hundred miles of habitat for smaller salmonids and lamprey and bull trout.

We are proud of these projects because they’re great examples of how dam removal can benefit communities as well as the environment. If we take the Pilchuck Diversion Dam, for example, removing it lessens flood risk for local landowners while also restoring access to about 37 miles of pristine riverine habitat. These projects no longer have to be about winners and losers, or the environment versus people, they illustrate that there are opportunities that benefit both.

The Pilchuck River before dam removal (left) and after dam removal (right). Photo credit: the Tulalip Tribes.

Laura Blackmore: In what ways do you think foundations and nonprofits can help with advancing ecosystem recovery and building climate change resilience?

Anji Moraes: I think foundations can play an important role as a catalyst and in filling gaps in what’s available through public funding. Our engagement on the Middle Fork Nooksack Dam removal illustrates this. We were drawn to that project because of its potential to significantly impact early Chinook recovery. Although the removal had been highly ranked in the watershed as a removal action for many years and it had been under discussion, it hit a roadblock in moving forward due to cost. Also appealing to us in that project were the number of partners involved, and for the most part it was a non-controversial project with broad community support.

Since funding was a major inhibiting factor, we felt that we could act as a catalyst in moving that project forward, and so the foundation became involved with it about five years ago. We were able to provide funding to reinvigorate the project and support a collaborative stakeholder process to identify a design alternative to the existing infrastructure. Public funding for those types of early-stage activities are really hard to come by and really hard to secure.

By accomplishing those initial steps, it positioned the project, and the City of Bellingham as the dam owner, to be eligible to seek co-funding from the state’s Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration (PSAR) fund, as well as a number of additional funding sources. Securing PSAR funding and implementing that project was a massive public-private endeavor, and it’s one that we’re really proud to be part of.

Laura Blackmore: I’m really glad to hear that. We’re really proud to be part of it, too. Thanks, Anji. The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation is involved with the Salmon-Safe certification, a program that helps implement farming and development practices that protect water quality and maintain watershed health. How do you think new or retrofitted infrastructure can help with salmon recovery and climate change adaptation?

Anji Moraes: The Puget Sound is an amazing ecoregion and it’s a beautiful place to live and work and play, and I don’t see the appeal of that going away any time soon, at least I hope not. Because of this, the pressures on our environment are just going to increase as the region’s population continues to grow.

Stormwater runoff is a primary source of pollution in the Puget Sound and it carries with it heavy metals and pesticides that adversely impact marine life. Environmentally innovative projects, like Salmon-Safe certification and green building practices, are important because they can help us improve water quality, which help keep our urban watersheds clean and help salmon thrive.

The foundation provided grant support to increase the uptake of Salmon-Safe principles throughout Puget Sound, and additionally, Vulcan Real Estate became the world’s first Salmon-Safe accredited developer in 2017. But Salmon-Safe certification is just one part of Vulcan’s commitment to sustainable development practices: others include brownfield remediation, natural groundwater treatment and reuse, and incorporating green roofs and pea patches into design developments, so there are lots of opportunities if one so desires to follow those.

These types of adaptations allow us to live within the environment that we find so appealing now, and they’ll help us continue to live really closely with our environment into the future.

Laura Blackmore: Following on that, what approach or action do you think could transform salmon recovery in Puget Sound, and what do you think is next for Vulcan and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation’s involvement in salmon recovery?

Anji Moraes: Salmon, as we know, are migratory species, so they travel hundreds of miles throughout their lifetime, encountering multiple threats along the way. I think that there’s great opportunity to work with partners at a landscape-scale across ecosystems and across boundaries, while embedding climate resiliency into the future conservation and recovery planning efforts.

As for what we are doing, if everything goes according to schedule, we’re supporting the removal of two more dams in Oregon this summer, as well as supporting a stakeholder engagement for a third.

Dam removal is just one of the tools that we implement in our ecosystem recovery. Our focus is on protecting unique and iconic wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, and we’ve talked today a lot about habitat restoration, but the foundation also supports research in salmon and orca health. As long as we continue to think about things being interconnected, the more effective we can be in supporting restoration and recovery.

Laura Blackmore: What gives you hope when you think about the recovery work that we have to do in the next 10 to 20 years?

Anji Moraes: There’s a lot. I think right now we’re in a moment of opportunity to create this flywheel of momentum that encourages other groups and communities to remove additional outdated dams. It’s probably no surprise to you that I personally think removing unnecessary dams is totally awesome. One takeaway I hope that people have from hearing about projects like the Middle Fork and the Pilchuck is that there’s ample opportunity to partner with others to think about ecosystem recovery that benefits the environment and people.

I think that we, as a collective group, are finally moving in the direction of identifying solutions and implementing work in an inclusive way, and I find that really hopeful. I think it will positively impact recovery of not just salmon but of our entire ecoregion.

Laura Blackmore: Following on that, there are lots of people who wonder how they could get involved, and what would you recommend to them?

Anji Moraes: I think people really just need to find opportunities that fit their own interests and personalities and resonate with them. One thing I’d recommend is getting involved in your governance—vote, talk to your electeds, let them know what’s important to you. Beyond that, read, talk to people, and find things to do in your community. Learn what’s happening in our world, in your watershed, and then just find time to enjoy and appreciate the natural world that we live in.

Laura Blackmore: I couldn’t agree more with all of that. What would you say are the most significant lessons that you’ve learned in your time working on conservation?

Anji Moraes: I think conservation comes back to partners. If you work with an inclusive group of people, you can achieve almost anything. We’ve been so lucky in our dam removal portfolio to work with groups and people who are really committed to the future of our region and of our communities.

Laura Blackmore: All right, now I have one non-Puget Sound question for you. What’s the last thing that you read that you really enjoyed or that stuck with you?

Anji Moraes: Oh goodness. I just finished grad school, so my reading has been mostly academic. I really enjoyed this course I took in paleogeography. It was super fascinating to learn about the configuration of the earth, and how that affected the climate, and how that has influenced our environment today and where species live.

Besides that, I have a huge stack of books on my reading list. For now, I’m trying to rejuvenate and catch up with things like knitting and hiking and gardening, which then leave me energized to dig into reads like the State of Our Watersheds, which I’ve been poring over, and which has been recently released.

Laura Blackmore: Well, I wish you much rejuvenation time, especially after finishing grad school. Congratulations.

Anji Moraes: Thank you.

Laura Blackmore: Anji, we really appreciate you taking the time to join us today. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us and thank you for the work that you do.

Anji Moraes: It was really my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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Making Waves is the Puget Sound Partnership’s online magazine. Making Waves features stories from the people protecting and restoring Puget Sound.