Dear EarthTalk: Would removing dams in the Pacific Northwest allow the wild salmon that used to thrive there return to their former abundance?
—Jake Gerard, Boston, MA
Before white settlement in the Pacific Northwest (pre-1850), each year some 10 million Pacific salmon—a so-called “silver tide”—swam up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to spawn at the streams and tributaries of their births. Native Americans feasted and derived much of their cultural awareness from the presence and cycles of these fish. Today as few as 10,000 salmon return home to the Snake River each season.
Over fishing and pollution—as well as the crossbreeding of native fish with weaker hatchery-born fish—have since taken their toll on wild salmon populations, but most analysts point to the construction of eight large hydropower dams throughout the Columbia/Snake system during the middle of the 20th century as the key factor. According to noted Pacific Northwest naturalist and writer William Dietrich, 106 salmon stocks have gone extinct from Northern California to the Canadian border since the dams were built.
According to Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of environmental groups and commercial and sport fishing associations, dams alone are responsible for the loss of 92 percent of salmon headed out to sea and of up to 25 percent on their way back upstream. “Fish are gone entirely from almost 40 percent of their historic rivers,” says Dietrich, who adds that most of the remaining fish are at risk, too, qualifying for full protection under the Endangered Species Act. Quite simply, the fish just cannot swim past the dams.
The idea of removing dams to restore salmon runs is not new. Environmentalists rejoiced in 1999 when Maine removed the 162-year-old Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River to allow passage for decimated stocks of Atlantic salmon. That dam was an obvious choice for removal, as it provided only 1/10th of one percent of Maine’s power needs, yet strained and drained 20 percent of the state’s watershed lands. In all, more than 145 dams have been removed across the U.S. since the Edwards Dam came down in 1999.
Environmentalists and biologists alike are calling for the removal of dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers, but doubt that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency responsible for developing a salmon plan, will actively promote the idea. Dams in the Pacific Northwest produce nearly seven percent of the nation’s electricity without generating greenhouse gases, and the Bush administration is eager to promote hydropower as one way to reduce our reliance on foreign oil.
Meanwhile, the federal government is working to complete removal of the Elwha Dam on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula by 2008. Built a century ago to generate power, the Elwha Dam shut off 70 miles of habitat for the more than 500,000 fish that had spawned there each year. Today, just 5,000 wild Pacific salmon swim up the Elwha River and school at the base of the dam each year, looking for a way upstream that no longer exists. The success or failure of the Elwha Dam removal will certainly impact the debate about the prospects for removing other hydropower dams in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.