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Lasting Legacies

During Orca Month in 2023, through stories and videos, we'll honor the Lasting Legacies of the Southern Resident orcas and celebrate the legacy of the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act.

Coming soon!


  • Amanda Colbert

This week, we continue further down the coast to explore the Columbia-Snake Rivers and their connection to northwest salmon and Southern Resident orcas.

The Columbia River headwaters originate in Columbia Lake, British Columbia, and travel 1,253 miles from its source to its mouth where it meets the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon. By volume, the Columbia River is the 4th largest river in North America, traveling through four mountain ranges and draining more water into the Pacific Ocean than any other river in North or South America. Historically, 10-16 million wild salmon and steelhead would move into the Columbia River aimed at spawning sites upriver. Certain salmon runs would travel as far inland as some of the tributary waters in British Columbia, Canada.

The Snake River headwaters originate from the western side of Wyoming in the Rocky Mountains, flowing due west through Idaho before making a sharp turn north along the Idaho/Oregon state line. The Snake flows 1,078 miles until it meets the Columbia River at the Tri-Cities in Washington State and is the largest tributary waterway of the Columbia. The Snake River watershed covers roughly 108,000 square miles and spans six states including Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, and Washington. Historically, 2-4 million wild salmon and steelhead would move into the Snake River aimed at spawning sites as far inland as Central Idaho. The Snake River basin once produced roughly half of all spring Chinook returning to Columbia basin rivers and tributaries. These “Springers” were/are highly desirable to tribes and fishermen because of their high-fat content, and vital to the Southern Resident orcas for the same reason.

These two rivers unify a large portion of the Pacific Northwest, with drainage basins spanning portions of seven U.S. states and British Columbia, in Canada. Historically, the Columbia and Snake Rivers provided unobstructed, optimal, and pristine habitat for the wild salmon and steelhead returning to spawn. Today, man-made pressures, dams, and environmental challenges have pushed wild salmon and steelhead populations to the brink, with the Federal Government currently listing 12 of the 13 salmon populations found in this river system as being “high risk” for extinction.

With the precipitous decline of salmon in the Columbia-Snake River system comes the compounded effects of decreased food availability for the Southern Resident orcas who have relied especially on the Chinook that enter the Columbia-Snake in the spring. The winter/spring period is an especially critical time for Southern Residents, with Chinook salmon typically less available, naturally, during this lean time. Continuing to reduce what winter/spring resources are available has contributed to the overall continued decline of their population.

The Chehalis River is the second largest river in Washington State and one of the only remaining free flowing major rivers on the west coast.

It is one of the biggest producers of wild (non-hatchery) salmon in the state. It contains 31 salmonid stocks, and supports spawning of wild spring Chinook, fall Chinook, Coho, and Steelhead. None of the salmon stocks are currently listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, however salmon in the Chehalis Basin have seriously declined 50 to 80% due to overfishing, unregulated timber harvest, and habitat destruction. It is estimated that the Basin’s spring run Chinook could be functionally extinct by the end of the century unless action is taken.

Chinook salmon from the Chehalis River are part of the Washington Coast stock which is listed as a priority stock for the endangered Southern Resident orcas, and satellite tagging has shown that Southern Resident orcas feed off Grays Harbor where the Chehalis River enters the Pacific Ocean.

Due to frequent and sometimes catastrophic flooding in the region, the Chehalis Basin Board is proposing the construction of a “flood retention facility” (dam) to mitigate the effects of floods.

The proposed dam would drown 6 miles of critical salmon and steelhead habitat, result in increased temperature and decreased dissolved oxygen and would permanently eliminate many acres of habitat. It would only protect a small percentage of homes and businesses in the Chehalis Basin, primarily those located along the I-5 corridor. The proposed project requires both state and federal permits, and both of those processes are currently underway. Out of concern for the impacts this dam would have on the river, salmon, local tribes, and Southern Resident orcas, a coalition of concerned citizens, Tribes, and local organizations formed the Chehalis River Alliance.

In July 2020, Governor Inslee expressed concern about the construction of a dam and directed the Chehalis Basin Board to work with local tribes to develop non-dam alternatives. As a result, the LAND (Local Actions Non-Dam) Steering Committee is currently meeting to develop sustainable flood reduction projects in the Chehalis Basin.

Action Item:

Here is how you can help stop the construction of the Chehalis River flood retention facility:

· Learn more about the Chehalis Basin and the proposed dam at

· Watch the documentary Chehalis: A Watershed Moment on Amazon Prime

· Contact your local Washington legislators, and Governor Inslee’s office and let them know that you oppose the construction of a dam on the Chehalis River, and that you support local non-dam alternatives that will mitigate flooding while protecting and restoring important salmon habitat.

o Contact Governor Inslee’s office: Contacting the Governor | Governor Jay Inslee (


· Chehalis Basin Strategy Fish and Wildlife Fact Sheet

· Proposed Chehalis River Basin Flood Damage Reduction Project, 2020

· Northwest Fisheries Science Center satellite tagging blog

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

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