Conservation and Biodiversity

Dams on the Columbia River threaten salmon and killer whales

The Columbia River is the largest river in the Pacific Northwest, comprising parts of seven western states and two Canadian provinces and draining an area the size of France.

For thousands of years, this vast watershed has been one of the world’s great salmon rivers. Little more than a century ago, 15 to 30 million salmon returned every year to the Columbia.

Chinook salmon, largest of the five species of Pacific salmon, were the most abundant, numbering well into the millions each year. Last year, fewer than 70,000 wild spring Chinook returned.

For salmon, and the organisms that depend on them, the Columbia has been transformed from one of the most biologically rich rivers on Earth, to one of the most thoroughly dammed.

A whale of a problem

Today, more than 400 dams clog the Columbia and its tributaries. These dams keep the lights on in the Pacific Northwest — but at an enormous cost.

The annual pulse of salmon once delivered a rich supply of marine derived nutrients to giant Douglas fir and cedar trees. Salmon also feed bears and a hundred other species — including humans. One of the most affected species by this decline in salmon, however, is the southern resident killer whale.

Southern resident killer whales have evolved to hunt and eat chinook salmon, and for many centuries, abundant salmon made for easy living. The southern residents spent their summers in the Salish Sea, a vast protected inland waterway stretching from Olympia, Washington, to Vancouver, British Columbia. The hunting was easy, the prey, plentiful. 

Ken Balcomb, a biologist who has studied these southern residents most of his life, described the killer whale’s behavior when he first encountered them over 40 years ago.

“They’d hunt for a few hours a day, then the rest of the time, they’d just goof off. Play, entertain boaters, mate,” he said. “But in those days, there were 50, 60 pound fish in the Salish Sea. It would only take two or three salmon to make a meal.”

Salmon these days are smaller, and rarer. Consequently, there are also fewer killer whales. Twenty years ago, nearly a hundred southern residents hunted in the Salish sea. By 2019, they have dwindled to 73.

The predicament for these killer whales became painfully clear in the late summer of 2018, when a female named Talequah gave birth to a calf, which died almost immediately. But the story doesn’t end there.

For 17 days, Talequah carried her dead baby for hundreds of miles in the Salish sea on what biologists began to recognize as a tour of grief. This heartbreaking action inspired whale lovers to gather more than 700,000 signatures, callingon Washington Governor Jay Inslee to take bold action to save southern resident killer whales.

Time to snake the river

This bold action starts with the removal of four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state.

The Snake River basin, one of the Columbia’s major tributaries, features one of the largest wild areas left in the lower 48 states. More than 4 million acres of wilderness, protecting thousands of miles of pristine streams and rivers, once produced half of all the chinook salmon in the Columbia Basin, some 2 to 4 million chinook every year. But four dams have all but eliminated access for salmon to these wild rivers.

And yet because of rapid changes to the way electricity is produced and delivered, these dams could — and should — be de-commissioned. Historically, California has bought the power these dams produced, and because of an aggressive renewable and home-grown energy policy, California doesn’t need it anymore. Back in the Pacific Northwest, a glut of energy that will last for a decade or more makes dam removal look even more desirable.

Essentially, we could have back some semblance of the Columbia’s salmon runs, all the while reinventing a regional energy system for the 21st century and making room for wind and solar power on the energy grid in the Pacific Northwest.

Beyond the opportunities lies an obligation. For millennia, the Columbia River tied the Pacific Ocean to the spine of the continent, and salmon are the thread that wove this connection. And whales are perhaps the most majestic expression of this weave of mountains and water. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to restore this rich living tapestry of wildlife. 

Sign the petition to tell politicians to remove the lower four Snake River dams and promote the recovery of our salmon and orca populations.