Saving the Columbia River Salmon

Dams and other manifestations of industrialization in the Pacific Northwest have decimated the once inexhaustible stocks of Columbia River salmon.

| August/September 1994

145 columbia river salmon 1 bonneville dam, cover

The Bonneville Dam and others like it have had a disastrous impact on Columbia River salmon. INSET: Irene and Kent Martin.


Kent Martin sits in the living room of his comfortable two-story home watching raindrops pound the sliding-glass doors. Outside, pastures already damp with puddles drain into a creek that meanders down the Skama Valley to the hamlet of Skamokawa, Washington, where it empties into Brooks Slough and the broad expanse of the Columbia River. The river and those fields sustained Kent Martin's father, his grandfather, his great-grandfather and thousands of other Nordic immigrants who settled the fishing communities on the Lower Columbia.

But they no longer sustain Kent Martin

"This is incredibly painful. It's like living in a mausoleum," says the barrel-chested commercial fisherman whose steel-rimmed glasses and shining pate give him an American Gothic air. "I've seen fire departments, schools, churches, all the institutions holding these communities together, falling apart. Everything people said in the 1940s is coming true like a curse:"

What people said, particularly a young fisheries biologist named Joseph A. Craig, was that the rapid industrialization of the Pacific Northwest was having a dramatic impact on a resource once thought as inexhaustible as the mighty river itself: Columbia River salmon. As early as 1935, Craig warned that logging, soil erosion, mining, pollution, irrigation, and overfishing were taking their toll on salmon stocks that were diminishing even then. Craig was particularly concerned with the large hydroelectric dams proposed for the Columbia River. He warned that dams would flood spawning grounds, hinder juvenile fish on their way to the sea, and, if built without adequate fish passages, would annihilate entire runs.

"As power and irrigation projects become more numerous," he wrote, "the protection and conservation of the migratory fishes of the Columbia present a problem that requires the best efforts of our engineers and biologists and the cooperation of the state and federal agencies involved, if this resource is to be maintained."

Since then more than 200 dams have been built in the Texas-sized Columbia River Basin, many with faulty fish ladders or none at all. Half of the salmons' original spawning ground is no longer accessible to them. In addition, farmers diverted river water to irrigate more than eight million acres of fertile desert, while loggers clearcut swaths through the Northwest's temperate rain forest. The dams also succeeded where plate tectonics failed, creating a seaport in Idaho.

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