Salmon, Rivers, Dams, and the Rural Communities They Coexist With

Every fall, thousands of Pacific salmon make their way from the ocean to freshwater streams and rivers throughout the Pacific Northwest to spawn. 

Many salmon return to the same stream they were born in to lay their eggs, led by an internal compass informed by day length, magnetic fields, water salinity and temperature, according to reporting from Scientific American. After spawning, they die: salmon are one of the few vertebrate species that die soon after reproduction because of how difficult their journey upstream is. (This according to the U.S. Geological Survey.)

Salmon swim upstream in Washington state. One salmon leaps in the foreground, a little tricky to see but once you spot it you won’t be able to un-see it. Another lies dead in the background. (Photo by Mary Carlson — Claire’s mom!)

This journey is made even more difficult by the dams that dot the rivers in Washington, Oregon, and northern California. 

Over the past century, salmon populations have decreased in part due to dam construction that made their waterways impassable and destroyed spawning habitats. Many dams have incorporated fish ladders to help salmon migrate, but their effectiveness is highly debated.

Fish ladder at Bonneville Dam in Oregon’s Columbia Gorge. (Photo by Claire Carlson.)

Last month, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission made a historic decision to remove four dams along the Klamath River, one in southern Oregon’s Klamath County and three in northern California’s Siskiyou County. It will be the largest river restoration project in the world and open up hundreds of miles of salmon habitat that in some places has been closed off for more than a century.

As with any project as impactful as this, some people are less than pleased by the decision. Many rural Siskiyou County residents fear the project will hurt their communities, citing concerns over new flood risks, property tax losses, and less recreation tourism, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting

Properties around Copco Lake, which was created by Copco 1 Dam – one of the four dams that will be removed – have already seen values decrease in anticipation of the lake’s disappearance, as reported by Herald and News. The Siskiyou County board of supervisors has asked the state for funding to cover any tax losses associated with dam removal. 

Other rural residents are more eager for the project. Klamath Tribes leaders have been advocating for the dams’ removal for years, citing the environmental benefit that would come with restoring the Klamath River’s natural flow, especially for the salmon. 

“The Klamath salmon are coming home,” said Yurok Chairman Joseph James in an Associated Press article. Fishing salmon has been part of the Klamath Tribes’ way of life long before the dams ever existed.

For the most part, though, it seems many locals are unhappy with the decision. In a column written earlier this year for the Siskiyou Daily News, Siskiyou County resident Bob Kaster said “everyone is on the [dam removal] bandwagon; everyone, that is, except for the majority of those of us who actually live here in the California and Oregon counties where the dams are located.”

Dam removal won’t start until next year, but it’s a project to keep an eye on because of the many rural stakeholders it will affect. 

Siskiyou and Klamath County residents will be vigilant about any changes to their communities. Scientists will be watching closely to learn how such a huge river restoration project will affect the water and animals and plants. 

And I, for one, will be watching for all these changes and waiting to see how the salmon, who are really at the center of it all, will respond to the enormous change in their ecosystem. If only they could be interviewed.

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One More Thing: Late December

Somehow we have entered the last half of December, which means we have officially reached the holiday hullabaloo of a year’s end. There won’t be a Keep It Rural newsletter next Tuesday, December 27, for obvious reasons: school’s out!!! 

I, and the rest of the Daily Yonder crew, will be taking it a bit slower between Christmas and New Years. We still have some articles in the works, but you can expect a quieter email inbox and a little less rural reading. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled program at the start of the new year.

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