The endangered Columbia River is the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest, cranking out energy and irrigation water for the benefit of millions of Pacific Northwest communities, industries, and farms. However, the dams that have provided these long-term benefits have taken their toll on the Columbia native fisheries, including salmon and steelhead. In a good year, the Columbia River used to host salmon runs in excess of 30 million fish. Today, reaching five to ten percent of historic runs is considered “good,” even when much of today’s runs are composed of hatchery fish rather than wild salmon. Several individual salmon stocks remain at only about one percent of historic abundance and are at high risk of extinction.
Fortunately, there is hope that a better balance can be struck for the Columbia River by modernizing the Columbia River Treaty with Canada. Just last week some news came out to bolster that hope: In a letter to Senator Patty Murray, the U.S. Department of State indicated that it would include “ecosystem-based function” along with the traditional Treaty purposes of flood risk mitigation and hydropower in its draft negotiating position.
This is great news, and could offer a boost for domestic and international efforts to restore fish passage past big dams without fish ladders, like Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams. An improved Columbia River Treaty could also provide more natural flows to benefit salmon, especially young salmon migrating to the sea in the spring and summer. However, now is not the time to let up!