Southern Resident orcas spend a lot of their time in the winter and spring months off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California, foraging for their favorite prey – Chinook salmon – from the great salmon rivers of the West Coast. Sadly, these salmon populations have been declining since major settlement of the West Coast began in the mid-1800s. The past century in particular has been hard on salmon populations, as the never-ending quest to tame and control nature has resulted in the construction of giant salmon-killing dams in every river on our West Coast. Rivers are dammed for a multitude of reasons, but no matter the purpose, every dam alters and diminishes the river ecosystem. The big salmon rivers, the Columbia, Sacramento, and Klamath, now have salmon runs that are shadows of their former greatness.
The Southern Residents are also feeling the effects, in perhaps the most striking example of the far-reaching impacts of these dams. Blocking migration routes and altering rivers has harmed not only salmon, but all the other parts of the ecosystem that depend on them – including orcas.
The updated agreement for the Klamath, the focus of a recent informative series by California’s KQED news, follows the original plan to remove all four dams in 2020. This would be the largest dam removal and river restoration project in US history, and would return more than 350 miles of historic spawning habitat to the Klamath’s salmon. A century ago, hundreds of thousands of salmon returned to the Klamath and its tributaries each year. Removing these dams, built between 1908 and 1962, restores passage to cooler waters, helping salmon weather the effects of climate change, and is expected to restore Chinook populations by up to 81% – a significant boost to the coastal food supply of the Southern Resident orcas.
Dam removal is not a perfect science, but we have learned more about the process and how it works in the past decade of restoring rivers in the Northwest and across America. According to the river advocacy organization American Rivers, 1,384 dams have been removed nationwide from 1912 through 2016. Each dam, river, and ecosystem is unique, but every dam removal has resulted in the rebound and renewal of the river. We have amazing examples of salmon recovery in the Elwha and White Salmon rivers, and we have seen that salmon, rivers, and shorelines have a remarkable ability to bounce back when they are allowed to return to a more natural state.
The new plan is still on track, and we are hoping the recent change in Administration will not impact PacifiCorp’s decision or commitment to restore the Klamath River. The current US Administration’s proposed actions and plans are far from environmentally-friendly, and dam removal on the Klamath still has to be approved by the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC), which may soon see a change in leadership. In the face of this Administration’s seemingly anti-environmental agenda, WDC is admittedly concerned about what their actions will mean for whales and dolphins, but we have amplified our efforts to protect these remarkable beings, and will continue to fight for recovery of the Southern Resident orcas by protecting their home and ecosystem.
Removing the Klamath dams will not alone be the savior of the Southern Resident orcas, but it is an important and vital step towards their recovery and for setting a precedent for river and ecosystem restoration. The significant increase in coastal salmon populations will help restore prey in the entire range of the Southern Residents, and more food will mean healthier whales, which can help them cope with the stressors of other threats (mainly, toxins and vessel impacts). Right now, they face an uncertain future, but with quick and decisive action and a commitment to ecosystem recovery – like the ongoing push to remove the Klamath River dams – the Southern Residents can be saved. WDC will continue to be an advocate for their future, and we hope you will join us.
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