Recently, I received a letter from a member that attended our Annual Meeting requesting an article on the effects of the Columbia and lower Snake River Dams on the salmon runs in the Northwest in addition to generating electricity. Salmon in the Pacific Northwest have always faced challenges to survive. As far back as the mid-1800s, salmon faced issues of over fishing, mining and loss of habitat.
The 1930s brought expanding urban growth and the construction of the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. They too contributed to reduction in salmon numbers and loss of habitat that pushed their stock toward extinction. These same dams helped bring the Pacific Northwest and the nation out of the Great Depression, electrify and power the rural communities of the four state regions while providing power to help the United States win World War II, irrigation for farming and recreation opportunities as well. During these times the salmon faced hard times.
Eighty years later things are changing and there are more salmon in the Columbia River now than when the Bonneville dam was built in 1938 on the lower Columbia. Salmon runs are trending upward due to increased hatchery production and harvest restrictions on wild salmon populations. 2014 saw salmon return to the Columbia River in the highest numbers in 75 years.
Fall runs of salmon and steelhead totaled 2.3 million. These numbers exceeded the past record set in 2011, when 2.1 million Chinook, sockeye, steelhead and Coho salmon returned. In ten years salmon return rates have almost doubled. Good ocean conditions are a primary reason but changes in dam operations, new technologies that were and continue to be installed help salmon pass the dams, improvements in hatchery practices, and habitat restoration efforts are helping too. These changes are part of the nation’s largest and most expensive wildlife restoration project. Funded in part by the members of REC and the citizens of the Northwest!
Since 1978, REC members and utility rate payers across the Northwest have contributed over $14 billion through their electric bills to increase salmon runs. These increases could not have been reached with out the collaboration of federal, state, tribal and other river users. All have helped ensure the safe passage of salmon past the dams on their way downriver to the ocean and on their return journey.
Survival rates are averaging approximately 97% for juvenile salmon migrating past the eight dams on the Columbia and Snake River. Over the last ten years the dramatic increases in fish returns is demonstrating the health of the fish runs. Between 2002 and 2011 wild Chinook salmon populations have more than tripled while the average wild steelhead populations have doubled!!
The numbers are impressive and being a REC member it’s rewarding to know that money from you electric bill has helped this remarkable success story unfold.