NARRATOR: Of the 79,000 dams on American rivers, many are old and expensive to maintain.
And many, like Savage Rapids Dam on Oregon’s Rogue River, block salmon from spawning streams.
In 2009, Savage Rapids joined the growing list of dams that have been taken down. When it was, the Rogue ran free for the first time in 80 years.
Jim Martin was among those who gathered for a celebratory float over the stretch of river where the dam once stood.
JIM MARTIN: The best estimate is that removing Savage Rapids Dam from the Rogue River will increase the salmon and steelhead populations by roughly 20%.
In the Northwest, every stream that’s restored increases the possibilities for salmon – and for people.
DAN BOTTOM: Part of that ecosystem that we’re talking about restoring is the one in which we live. It’s definitely not just a scientific problem. It’s a question of what kind of world people want to live in.
Rancher Doug McDaniel of Wallowa, Oregon, wants that world to include wild salmon. He and hundreds of other landowners are working with local watershed associations to restore streams to a more natural state.
Doug remembers fishing this stream as a child, back before it, and many others in the Northwest, were straightened in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
DOUG MCDANIEL: As a boy, this river was full of trees and logs and big holes and washes here and there and it ran all over the place and it was fantastic fishing. Anything we can do in these streams to bring that back, I think it just makes a lot of sense. An increase in salmon would mean an increase in the health of the streams.
Curves and pools and rocks were added to Doug’s stretch of the river, and woody structure was worked into the banks. And now he has just the sort of stream a spawning fish would happily call home.
In Oregon alone, more than 3,500 stream miles have been restored. There are even restoration efforts underway in the Estuary.
Generally, fish runs recover quickly when given the chance.
DAVID DUNCAN: I’ve seen some of these streams recover and have runs of tens of thousands of fish.
Inspired by the successful restoration of local spawning streams, many in the Pacific Northwest are excited about an opportunity for change at the regional level.
The four dams on the Lower Snake River were constructed primarily as navigation locks in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They disrupt migration to and from some of the healthiest habitat remaining in the Columbia River Watershed.
DUNCAN: The Lower Snake River dams take things into a whole different dimension. By simply removing these four Cold War conceived dams on the lower Snake, you have done what these heroes have done on these small watersheds to five thousand five hundred miles of beautiful wilderness streams that could literally… I mean, literally support millions of salmon. I mean, it’s so simple. It’s just simple. If the four lower Snake River dams were removed, it would be the largest wild salmon recovery project that’s workable on Earth at a time when ninety percent of the ocean’s fisheries have been lost.
NARRATOR: Simple doesn’t mean easy.
Untangling a century of clever alternatives to salmon swimming up and down streams will mean embracing a different set of challenges.
JERRY MYERS: For us to… to tackle this salmon problem, we have to work on the things that we’re good at: better ways to generate electricity, to water fields, to get commodities to the coast. We can do those things. And if we give nature a chance to recover these fish, it will happen.
NARRATOR: In the summer of 2006, only three sockeye passed above all eight dams and completed their 900-mile odyssey to Idaho.
Citing poor returns, an advisory panel nicknamed the “god squad” recommended ending the captive breeding program for Idaho’s iconic salmon.
But just when hope, and fish, were almost extinct, we were reminded of the resilience of what we’ve been working so hard to save.
In the spring of 2008, a federal judge ordered the Columbia and Snake River Dams to spill water from their reservoirs.
For a few months, the system was managed to act like a river again. Water flowed. And juvenile salmon found themselves pointed into a current, migrating to the sea. For the next three years, people continued their salmon policy battles in courtrooms and statehouses. The salmon, indifferent to it all, affirmed their purpose the only way they could.
In the summer of 2010, more than 1,300 sockeye returned to the creek below Redfish Lake… the best year for returns since the construction of the dams.
Although it’s just a fraction of a percent of historic runs in the tens of thousands, the magnitude of the improvement showed us that it’s not too late for salmon.
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