America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2015

2. Columbia River

Location: Washington, Oregon

Outdated dam operations are putting healthy runs of salmon and other fisheries at risk.

Columbia Gorge | Thomas O’Keefe

Once home to the largest salmon runs in the world, the mighty Columbia River is now blocked by a series of dams. However, the damage to the river’s ecosystem can begin to be reversed if the federal government demands flow and fish passage commitments in a renegotiated Columbia River Treaty with Canada.

For the past 60 years, this treaty prioritized flood control and hydropower generation at the expense of salmon and other environmental values. President Obama can add a much-needed voice for salmon and river ecology simply by revising a 50-year-old executive order.

There will be significant changes to how potential floods on the river are managed in 2024 should the United States and Canada fail to take action to modernize the Treaty. Those operations will be detrimental not only to salmon but to the health of the river as well. As the United States prepares for negotiations with Canada, now is the time to add an ecosystem representative to the U.S. negotiation team to ensure salmon and the ecosystem have a voice at the table.

The River

The Columbia River Basin covers 258,000 square miles and includes parts of seven states and one Canadian province. In its 1,200 mile course to the ocean, the river flows through four mountain ranges and drains more water to the Pacific Ocean than any other river in North or South America. It once produced the largest salmon runs on earth, with returns often exceeding 30 million salmon per year; today, only a fraction return to spawn. The river also provides drinking water to numerous communities along its course, and irrigates 600,000 acres of cropland.

Between the U.S. and Canada, the river’s 19 hydroelectric dams provide about half the region’s supply of electricity, in addition to providing flood control benefits. However, the dams have also played a major role in the decline and extirpation of numerous salmon and steelhead populations, including 13 stocks currently listed under the Endangered Species Act. Populations of Pacific lamprey and sturgeon have also been impacted, and water quality has declined as a result of the dams.

The Threat

Dam and reservoir operations have fundamentally changed the Columbia River’s natural flows. Spring run-off is captured behind dams, thereby reducing flows and slowing the migration of young salmon headed out to sea, exposing them to predators in a series of slow-moving reservoirs. Reduced flows also harm the health of the Columbia River estuary by shrinking the size of the river’s freshwater plume— an area that hosts a variety of fish and bird species and accommodates the gradual adjustment of salmon to living in saltwater. Dams have also blocked salmon from thousands of miles in the upper Columbia River system, including tributaries such as the Spokane and Kettle rivers in Washington and numerous rivers in British Columbia.

Releasing more water from behind Canadian and American dams in the spring can help restore healthier flows for salmon and other species, even in the face of more winter precipitation coming as rain rather than snow, coupled with an earlier snowmelt from climate change. Combined with improved dam operations, floodplain and estuary restoration projects, and building fish passage at currently impassable dams, the future for the Columbia River’s salmon, steelhead, and other species could be surprisingly bright. Conversely, failing to prioritize ecosystem health on par with hydropower production and flood control under the Columbia River Treaty could condemn the river and its fish and wildlife to further decline.

What Must Be Done

Currently, the Columbia River Treaty has just two purposes: hydropower and flood control. It is time to bring the treaty into the 21st Century by adding an “ecosystem function” purpose. This purpose can be realized by: 1) Releasing more water from reservoirs during the spring and summer to help young salmon safety complete their journey to sea; 2) Restoring floodplain and estuary habitat in the lower Columbia River for the benefit of fish and wildlife and to ensure flood safety; and 3) Working to reintroduce salmon and steelhead above currently impassable barriers such as Grand Coulee Dam.

To meet these ecosystem goals, the U.S. Department of State, which will negotiate any changes to the Columbia River Treaty, must declare its intention to include an “ecosystem function” purpose in the renewed Treaty. The “Regional Recommendation on the Future of the Columbia River Treaty after 2024” submitted by the U.S. Entity (the Administrator, Bonneville Power Administration and the Division Engineer, North Pacific Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to the State Department recommended including “ecosystem function” as a treaty purpose after consulting with 15 Columbia Basin tribes and 4 states, as well as electric utilities, conservationists, farmers, and other stakeholders. Implementing “ecosystem function” will require a basin-wide review of flood control operations in order to provide for higher flows while continuing to protect public safety and property.

In addition, President Obama should revise the current Executive Order that established the U.S. Entity to implement the treaty on behalf of the U.S., appointing an additional representative to represent ecosystem concerns and commit to appointing tribal representatives to the negotiating team to modernize the Treaty. The U.S. Department of State and Northwest state governments should push for investment in fish passage for salmon, steelhead, lamprey, and resident fish species at all dams where it is feasible.

How You Can Help

Tell President Obama: add “ecosystem function” as a purpose to the Columbia River Treaty with Canada and appoint a member of the U.S. negotiation team to speak for the health of the river. Take Action »

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