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Rivers & Watersheds

During Orca Month in 2022, through stories and videos, we'll explore some of the watersheds and rivers that are essential to Pacific Northwest salmon and vitally important to the endangered Southern Resident orcas and a healthy marine ecosystem. 


Historically famous for the size and diversity of its salmon runs, the Elwha was a formerly free-flowing, then dammed, and now free-flowing river once more. Today, the Elwha is famous for the decommissioning and removal of both the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams. These projects are arguably the biggest success story in Washington State and have freed more than 70 miles of mainstream and tributary habitat for salmon to use once again. Restoration of the Elwha River ecosystem, including the estuary habitat at the mouth of the river, will remain an ongoing process to ensure that this river is fully restored and hospitable for inbound and outbound salmon.
Elwha- Roaring back to life, Steve Ringman | Copyright- The Seattle Times


The Elwha River headwaters originate in Olympic National Park, just southeast of Mount Olympus. The river flows north for roughly 45 miles, reaching the Strait of Juan de Fuca due west of Port Angeles, Washington. The Elwha, formerly free-flowing, dammed in the early 1900s, and now free-flowing once more, was historically famous for the size and diversity of the salmon runs found there. It is estimated that this river produced 380,000 migrating salmon and trout and supported all five species of Pacific Northwest salmon. According to the National Park Service, Chinook exceeding 100 pounds were found in the Elwha. Those 100 pound Chinook salmon were the norm for Southern Resident orcas, and these sizes meant that each orca would only need a few of these fish a day, to survive.

In the early 1900s, two dams were constructed as hydroelectric energy sources to aid in growing the city of Port Angeles and the logging industry this city depended on. And though these energy sources helped fuel the local economy in the first half of the century, without fish passage and accumulating sediment blockages upriver, salmon were left with a mere 5 miles of deteriorated riverbanks for spawning purposes. By the 1980s salmon populations were threatened across the entire

Hydro-Electric Power Station. Elwha River, c. 1950

Pacific Northwest, and after several years of politics, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act in 1992. This Act gave authority to the Secretary of the Interior over the dams along with implementing the actions necessary to fully restore the Elwha River. Decommissioning and removal plans began to materialize.

Today, the Elwha has made history by being the largest dam removal project in the United States, which is also arguably one of the biggest success stories in Washington. After two decades of planning, the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams were removed in 2011 and 2014, opening 70 miles of mainstream and tributary habitat for spawning salmon. All but 5 of those miles, near the mouth, had been blocked for almost a century. Scientists have reported that the most dramatic impact of removal of the dams has been the recreation of the estuary at the river mouth, providing new habitat for salmon, forage fish, and other species. Salmon have been documented in areas of the Elwha that they have not had access to in 100 years, which is also another wonderful sign. Given more time, it appears that salmon can make a recovery post-dam removal.

A Free Flowing Elwha in Winter

Resources: Lessons From the World’s Largest Dam-Removal Project at the Elwha River ( | History of the Elwha - Olympic National Park (U.S. National Park Service) ( | Elwha River | U.S. Geological Survey (

YouTube: Time Lapse of Elwha River Dam Removals - YouTube

"Long before the explorer George Vancouver began remaking the names and maps of our region, Puget Sound was known as “Whulge,” an onomatopoetic Coast Salish word denoting the sound of waves.”

“If you listen closely, the waves washing against the Puget Sound shoreline make a subtle sound. It is not the booming surf of the outer coast but something unique to our region. The quiet, persistent sound of an inland sea. Whulge."

— excerpt from 'Homewaters' blends natural and cultural history of Puget Sound, by David B. Williams, University of Washington Press.

The Northwest Washington State region contains several large river systems with freshwater outputs north of Puget Sound proper. The Nooksack River, Skagit River, and Snohomish River drain extensive valley systems within the North and Middle Cascade Mountain Range providing vital habitat for Spring and Fall runs of Chinook, Coho, and Chum salmon, depending on the river. According to NOAA Fisheries’ 2018 Southern Resident Killer Whale Priority Chinook Stocks report, these three rivers were scored as some of the highest on the priority list for fall prey resources for the orcas. Salmon abundance fell as these rivers, estuaries, and surrounding environments were developed and degraded. But with continued restoration plans and efforts, there is hope for salmon on these rivers. And with hope for salmon, comes hope for Southern Residents.

Nooksack River, Jasper Gronewald

The Nooksack River headwaters originate in western Whatcom County, with its North Fork tributary being the northernmost river in Washington State. Flowing, 75 miles before emptying into Bellingham Bay, the Lower Mainstem Nooksack was one of the last areas to be developed, and historically supported robust Chinook runs in the spring, and Chinook, Coho, and Chum runs in the fall.

An important estuary for inbound migrating salmon and outbound salmon smolts, development in and around the river began to degrade water quality and habitat, thereby impacting salmon abundance. Spring Chinook on the Nooksack’s South Fork are “threatened,” and could become endangered in the very near future. With Chinook making up roughly ~80% of the Southern Resident orcas’ diet, this decline in Chinook has impacted their seasonal foraging use, and during seasons in which the orcas are typically seen in reduced body condition.

A Hinderance Turned Success Story: In 1961, the Middle Fork Nooksack River Dam was built by the City of Bellingham for water diversion to Lake Whatcom, which supplied the city’s drinking water. Obstructing 16 miles of stream habitat, the dam was permitted, and built, without the inclusion of fish passage. This structure, unsurpassable by the salmon and trout that utilized those 16 miles to spawn the next generations, contributed to these anadromous fish declines.

Spearheaded by the Lummi and Nooksack Tribes, and then joined by American Rivers, the summer of 2020 witnessed a complete demolition of the Middle Fork Nooksack River Dam. Removing this dam and rerouting the point of water diversion restores access to the 16 miles that have been lost to salmon and trout over the last 60 years. Channel restoration, habitat restoration, and the installation of fully compliant fish screens for fish protection will ensure that spring Chinook have the best chance of revitalizing their population in the Middle Fork.

Resources: | |

Skagit River, North Cascades, WA

The Skagit River headwaters originate in southwestern British Columbia, Canada, flowing southwest into Washington State, discharging freshwater into Skagit Bay near the city of La Conner on its north fork, and the city of Conway on its south fork. Flowing 150 miles and draining 1.7 million acres of the Cascade Range, the Skagit is the largest river in western Washington and is the only river that is home to all five species of Pacific Northwest salmon.

While the Skagit River lacks great historical records, scientists, along with state and tribal governments, have been working over the last 40 years to count and monitor salmon and trout on their spawning grounds. The “escapement” estimate from these counts helps to track the health of the populations. Though all five salmon species have experienced varying levels of decline, with spring, summer, and fall Chinook spawners listed as endangered, the last 40 years of monitoring have shown most of the species holding their current numbers. While there is much to be done to rebound salmon numbers in the Skagit, there can be hope in that stabilization.

Chinook mostly spawn in two seasons on the Skagit: spring and fall. The fall stocks prefer large, mainstem channels, utilizing areas of the river from Sedro Woolley up toward Newhalem and Darrington. The spring stocks utilize smaller tributaries in higher locations in the Cascades, such as the Suiattle and Upper Sauk Rivers. While each run encounters varying degrees of difficulties upon inbound migration, and there are three hydroelectric dams along the Skagit River that are currently being studied for their impacts on salmon, it is the estuaries along the Skagit Delta that play the largest role in salmon survival and are in the most trouble.

Along the Skagit Delta, which spans from Camano Island north to Padilla Bay, it has been reported that 73% of historical tidal wetlands have been lost since the 1860s, with an 88% loss in estuarine habitat specifically used by juvenile Chinook salmon. This loss is mostly due to diking off and draining said habitat to make it suitable for agriculture and development. With estuaries providing essential food resources, a refuge from predators, and rearing grounds for growing salmon smolts, the Skagit Chinook Recovery Plan was created to focus on restoration projects that will recover estuarine habitat as well as protect the remaining habitat. Their goal is to add 1.35 million juvenile Chinook to the system by recovering 2,700 acres of vital habitat. Currently, with seven restoration projects completed from 2005-to 2016, calculations of long-term smolt carrying capacity is at 12.19% of their overall goal.

Resources:,the%20estuarine%20habitats%20specifically%20used%20by%20juvenile%20Chinook. |

Sunrise on the Snohomish River Summer - Everett Washington USA

The Snohomish River headwaters originate in Northern Puget Sound flowing northwest from Monroe, Washington. The river empties fresh water into the Salish Sea at Possession Sound, situated between Everett and Marysville. Covering 1,856 square miles, the Snohomish is the second-largest watershed in the Puget Sound region. It is also one of the primary salmon-producing river basins, bringing forth 25-50% of the overall Coho salmon in Puget Sound. In juxtaposition, however, Chinook salmon in the Snohomish River system are at less than 10% of their historic numbers.

The Snohomish River faces both historical and present-day issues that have had compounding consequences for salmon survival. Diking, deforestation, and urbanization surrounding the mouth of the Snohomish dramatically changed and reshaped the functioning estuary, with approximately 90% of pre-settlement habitat becoming disconnected from tidal influence. The land was transitioned to support agriculture, dwellings, transportation, and industrial use. Lead and arsenic poisoned most of the soil in northeast Everett where the Everett Smelter Site operated in the early 1990s. The Department of Ecology began working in the 1990s to remove the contaminated soil and clean up the former smelter site, with restoration work still taking place today.

Present Day Issues and Restoration Efforts:

Today, other pollutants are also making wetlands and portions of the Snohomish inhospitable to salmon. Dioxin from wood pulp and high levels of metals like copper, mercury, zinc, and lead, are being found throughout the environment and the water. PCBs, fecal coliform and stormwater runoff add to this problem, as well. But there is hope. Throughout the Snohomish River estuary, over 850 acres have been restored to their pre-settlement conditions with more restoration projects currently in the construction or planning phase. With the possibility of restoring up to 50% of the historical estuary, the restoration of this estuary is the largest effort of its kind in Puget Sound.

Resources: Snohomish Salmon ( |

  • Amanda Colbert

Sunset above Fraser River along Yellowhead Hwy near Jasper National Park in Canada

The Fraser River, historically considered to be one of the greatest salmon producing rivers in the world, is British Columbia’s longest river, flowing 854 miles out to the Strait of Georgia, just south of the city of Vancouver.

While the entire Fraser watershed is essential to salmon, the Fraser estuary is of utmost importance. It provides a migratory corridor for salmon populations aimed at far-reaching spawning sites, prime habitat for other salmon populations that don’t migrate into the river but spawn there instead. It is also vital rearing habitat for out-migrating salmon smolts.

Because of these historically abundant salmon populations returning to the Fraser in the spring and summer seasons, the fish-eating Southern Resident orcas were drawn into the Salish Sea during those seasons, spending their time foraging on salmon around the San Juan Islands, north to the Fraser River Delta. Summer field researchers in the 1970s and 80s could accurately estimate the arrival and departure of orcas timed with the Fraser’s seasonal runs of salmon.

In the last ten to twenty years, however, changes in Southern Resident foraging patterns, pod structure, and movements have occurred as salmon numbers continue to dwindle to just a fraction of their historic numbers.

More than half (33) of Fraser River salmon populations have been greatly reduced given their former abundance. 46 of the 54 unique populations have been evaluated by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) resulting in 36% being classified as endangered, 15% as threatened, and another 13% listed as populations of special concern.

What is happening in the Fraser?

The initial transformation of the Lower Fraser and its surrounding delta from wetlands to farmland occurred by diking off and draining these areas, severely reducing critical salmon habitat. Other development, as well as the elimination of surrounding forests to create a major metropolis, has had a variety of dire consequences for salmon, including warming river temperatures, water pollution from urban runoff, and irregular water flows. Today, flood control mechanisms or “gates,” alter natural hydrological cycles, impact water quality, and create barriers that impede fish passage.

In order to begin reducing these impacts, with the aim to set salmon and Southern Resident orcas on a restorative track, there must be collaborative efforts to conserve remaining salmon habitat and efforts to restore that habitat which has been degraded.

FOR MORE DETAILS AND INFORMATION, VISIT: Toward a vision for salmon habitat in the Lower Fraser River | Raincoast Conservation Foundation

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