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Making Waves — Oregon

May 22, 2024

Climate problems may seem overwhelming, but people all around this great nation are taking action. This week we’re looking at OREGON and the question is: Fish are on the road and grain is on the river: what is wrong with this picture?

In the Idaho column, I wrote that I’d circle back to the controversial proposal to remove dams on the Snake River, the largest tributary to the Columbia River as it flows west to the Pacific Ocean. Until a century ago, the Columbia was the most productive river system in the lower 48 states, for a half dozen species of Pacific salmon, all but one of which are now teetering on the brink of extinction.

Starting in 1933, we’ve built over 60 dams in the Columbia River basin. To compensate for the dams’ barrier effects on salmon runs, the first fish ladders were installed at the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia in 1938. Other types of side channels and fish assists have been piloted. Salmon populations continued to steadily decrease. Today there are also extensive hatchery operations that put hundreds of thousands of smolts (young salmon) back into the river system, at huge taxpayer cost. Smolts are seasonally trucked upriver (= fish on the roads) while along the Columbia, farming has also developed into big business. Agricultural interests throughout Washington and Oregon depend on the river for water, irrigation, and transportation, to ship grains and produce downriver by barge (= grains on the river).

Any dam removal plan must bring these powerful farming interests to the table (we all have to eat) along with other water users and stakeholders: urban residents dependent on hydroelectric power; fisheries on the coast; recreation and tourism businesses throughout the region; and Native Americans who subsist on salmon and whose cultural identities are tied to salmon, the king of fish. Negotiations have lasted for decades. The proposal to remove the Snake River dams in the Columbia River basin is currently in limbo, in a holding pattern strung between government, legislature, and courts. Watch for news of the logjam breaking, hopefully not too late for the salmon. It’s all too complex to fit into one column!

Nonetheless, it is critical that we all understand the situation. Toward that end, I offer a couple of edifying programs. The first is a beautiful video to remind us what good salmon habitat looks like, and what migratory fish require. I hope you’ll find time to watch this stunning video, a short documentary shot in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. Witness a relatively undisturbed ecosystem supporting salmon along with other species that depend on salmon (including humans). The documentary covers the cultural significance of salmon to the native peoples of southern Alaska and even the role of salmon in bringing nutrients from the ocean for uptake by forests far inland.

The Salmon Forest | Tongass National Forest Alaska Nature Documentary [~30 mins]

The second effort to relay the difficulties in this week’s topic focuses on another major salmon run whose fate was at a similar juncture four years ago. The Klamath River gets its start in Oregon before flowing south to California and out to the Pacific. No less controversial than the Snake River dam proposals, but with an agreement settled in 2022, you might soon be hearing about these Klamath dams, as they’ll be coming down starting in summer 2023. You get a choice between two podcasts from 2019 before the agreement was forged. One does a thorough job of explaining the basics:
Podcast: American Rivers (10/3/2019)
Episode 23: From the Stanislaus to the Klamath – Speaking up for free-flowing rivers [the Klamath segment is covered in the first 18 mins]

The second offers a more nuanced view, with saltier language:
Podcast: Living Downstream (6/8/2019) produced by norcalpublicmedia.org
Episode: The Klamath Water Wars [34 mins]

The takeaway is that the “warring parties” finally reached common ground and found appreciation of their shared values. Although everyone had to give up something they wanted, they all got some of what they needed. It is indeed a lesson for our times.

Let me know if you have a podcast to recommend, have a comment about my column, or have trouble finding a particular podcast I’ve mentioned. Happy listening!
[email protected]

Note: This column, part of a series looking at examples of positive climate action, state-by-state, first appeared in the Forest County News Journal 02-22-2023. If you are interested in this state’s topic, check online for updated news, as a lot may have changed in a year and a quarter.

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