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Orcas and the Klamath

WDC is grateful to our guest bloggers and value their contributions to conservation. The views and opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of, and should not be attributed to, WDC.

The Klamath and Killer Whales

By Steve Rothert, California director for American Rivers

The rivers of the Pacific Coast once teemed with wild salmon, providing nourishment for humans, wildlife and ecosystems from the mountains to the sea—including many communities of orca whales. But for the last century, dams, habitat loss, and excessive harvest have pushed salmon to the brink. Dams have become one of the most serious threats facing wild salmon. More than 75,000 dams have been constructed in the United States, with many of those blocking salmon streams throughout the Pacific salmon states of Washington, Oregon and California.

The decline in salmon populations has had a serious impact on killer whale populations, because it turns out chinook salmon are their favorite food along the Pacific coast. Recent studies show that at least three pods of orcas live along the California coast from about Point Lobos (Monterey) up to the Oregon border.  Traveling these waters, the whales focus their feeding on chinook salmon supported by the Sacramento, Eel, Klamath and other rivers.

Today, many communities and dam owners are choosing to remove old, outdated dams as the best, most cost-effective solution for dealing with the dams’ environmental and safety issues. Successful dam removals on Northwest rivers including Oregon’s Sandy and Rogue rivers, and Washington’s Elwha and White Salmon rivers have illustrated the many benefits of dam removal to rivers, salmon, and people.

Elwha River

The site of the former Elwha dam on the Elwha River.

On the Elwha River, the largest dam removal effort to date, wild salmon have returned quickly, migrating into reaches of the river that hadn’t seen salmon for more than 100 years.

Elwha River

Sediment flowing out of the Elwha is creating new estuaries and habitats for spawning salmon.

The momentum from these and other successful restorations has highlighted opportunities on other signature wild salmon rivers, specifically the Klamath River that runs through Southern Oregon and Northern California. The Klamath, once one of the most embattled river basins in the American West, is now poised to become the largest river restoration in U.S. history—reconnecting wild salmon and steelhead to more than 300 miles of habitat.

This spring, after 15 years, the Klamath Basin’s farmers, ranchers, Native Americans, commercial fishermen, and conservation groups joined forces to sign the Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement. The final step is to pass legislation to implement the agreement and begin deconstruction of the river’s four dams. On November 13, 2014 the bill introduced by Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, of Oregon, and Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, of California, made it one step closer, passing through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  

We had been hoping to pass the legislation as part of the omnibus spending bill that is making its way through Congress in the current lame duck session (as of this writing), but House leadership declined to allow it to move forward. With the retirement at the end of this 113th Congress of certain members of the House who have stymied river restoration efforts for years, there might be an opportunity to work with constructive members to move Klamath legislation in the 114th

More on the Klamath from American Rivers. Since 1973, American Rivers has worked to protect wild rivers, restore damaged rivers, and conserve clean water for people and nature.

Update: For the second time, Congress has failed to approve the Klamath River agreements, and the dam removal process remains stalled.  Please sign our Letter of Support and help us continue to push PacifiCorp to follow through on their agreement to remove the four Klamath River dams!