Salmon return when dams come down

Salmon responded rapidly when Condit Dam was removed from the White Salmon River in Washington in 2011. (Photo by Thomas O’Keefe, American Whitewater)

When three large dams began coming down a little more than a year ago in Washington state, two long-stilled rivers were once again opened to migrating salmon and steelhead.

The fish responded rapidly.

Author Steven Hawley lives near the mouth of the White Salmon River, where Condit dam was removed in September 2011.

“Just above where the dam was, there are already fall chinook spawning in places that were under 20 feet of water and another 20 feet of muck just a year ago,” Hawley said. “That shows us that fish will come back. And that gives me hope that if four dams on the lower Snake are removed, the same thing could be accomplished.”

In 2011 Hawley published “Recovering a Lost River,” a book that chronicles the politics, economy and biology of Idaho’s endangered salmon. Dams, his book concludes, are the primary problem for our fish.

Another September 2011 example of how dam removal benefits fish also comes from Washington state, where two Elwha River dams were removed on the Olympic Peninsula. With both dams gone, salmon and steelhead are returning.

“It’s the same story,” Hawley said. “Fish have immediately returned faster than anybody thought they would. I think you’ll see on the Elwha as well that recovery is going to exceed expectations.”

The three dam removals on the Elwha and White Salmon rivers offer important lessons for residents of the Snake River watershed — including Idahoans.

“First, the Elwha and White Salmon projects show us that dam removal will help restore salmon,” said IRU Executive Director Bill Sedivy. “Second, these projects also teach that if we work together, if we collaborate, our society can still get things done. That’s a big lesson to apply to the lower Snake.”

For Idaho’s salmon, the science is clear — four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state are the most significant impediment to survival.

Following federal district Judge James Redden’s August 2011 rejection of the latest federal salmon recovery plan, Sedivy said it’s time to bring key salmon players together to begin a collaborative process that finds lasting solutions.

In 2009, U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, offered a potential roadmap. Perhaps the best way to move forward, the senator suggested, is to bring salmon stakeholders together — conservationists, fishermen, tribes, power producers, barging and transportation interests, farmers, irrigators and the states — to hammer out a solution. This fall, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, also from Oregon, expressed similar interest in convening stakeholder talks.

“The time for a stakeholder solutions table is here,” Sedivy said. “The region can’t afford the economic uncertainty caused by a continued courtroom merry-go-round, and our salmon can’t afford another decade of legal wrangling.”