Thursday, January 4, 2024

Water Line goes West

The Sandy River at Oxbow Regional Park

Coalition of the undammed

Drop by a riverside hike on a holiday vacation to the Pacific Northwest and get an unexpected lesson on dam removal.

The Sandy River near Portland, Oregon, has flown freely since 2007. That summer Portland General Electric blew to pieces its Marmot Dam and the electricity it generated for around 16,500 homes.

A few months later, as planned, a massive deluge washed away a temporary earthen cofferdam used for removal and much of the gargantuan load of sediment that had built up behind the dam since it was installed in 1913.

When salmon were federally listed as threatened in 1998, their runs on the Sandy, which originates from glaciers on Mount Hood, were down to as little as 10% of historic levels. That status required new protective measures when the dam went up for license renewal.

The utility decided construction of a fish ladder for migrating salmon and transport of juvenile fish around the barrier was more costly than dam removal, so PGE moved to surrender its federal dam license, an unprecedented action.

During eight years of planning and modeling the dam’s removal, a coalition formed to plan out a broader restoration strategy to pair with opening river passage. Coalition partners installed over 4,800 large pieces of timber to restore important habitat on stretches of the Sandy and its major tributary, the Salmon River. Over time natural processes magnified the manmade log jams and extended habitat for juvenile salmon.

Efforts also focused on replanting riparian corridors with native plants and controlling invasive species. Undersized culverts, another key barrier to aquatic passage, were targeted for replacement. In total, the team completed over 120 restoration projects throughout the river’s watershed since 1997.

More than 15 years after removal, the signs of salmon recovery were positive. According to the Sandy River Basin Watershed Council’s State of Sandy Report:

“Three threatened Sandy wild populations, spring Chinook, coho and steelhead, show increases in their 10-year average populations, particularly in the second generation of adult fish returns after dam removal.”

Read about dam removal efforts in the Adirondacks here and here

Salish Sea

Looking from Bellingham, Washington, at the San Juan Islands in the Salish Sea. Photo by Zachary Matson.

Introducing the Salish Sea

I also visited family in Bellingham, Washington, the last major outpost before reaching the Canadian border on that side of the country. The fast-growing city of nearly 100,000 looks to be an outdoors-lover’s paradise. It sits on the coast and is just a 90-minute driver to the towering peaks of North Cascades National Park.

Though, just two small pockets of old-growth remain in sprawling Whatcom County.

The city sits on what is now known as the Salish Sea, comprising the Puget Sound, Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and interconnected channels and waterways.

The name, which was coined by a local geography professor in 1988, honors the region’s indigenous peoples. In 2009, the United States Board on Geographic Names and its Canadian counterpart officially adopted the Salish Sea as the name for the massive coastal waterway.

Despite the name change, awareness among residents of the region remains low. A 2019 survey of people living near the Salish Sea found that just 9% of Washington residents and 15% of Canadians were familiar with the formal geographic name.

Read about a recent Adirondack brook name change

Sun streaks streaming in on a wooded street

How Portland does city parks. Photo by Zachary Matson.

Photo at top: The Sandy River at Oxbow Regional Park near Portland, Oregon. Photo by Zachary Matson.

This first appeared in Zach’s weekly “Water Line” newsletter. Click here to sign up.


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Zachary Matson has been an environmental reporter for the Explorer since October 2021. He is focused on the many issues impacting water and the people, plants and wildlife that rely on it in the Adirondack Park. Zach worked at daily newspapers in Missouri, Arizona and New York for nearly a decade, most recently working as the education reporter for six years at the Daily Gazette in Schenectady.

5 Responses

  1. nathan says:

    go post in Oregon?

  2. Boreas says:

    Thanks Zachary! Hopefully our removal/restoration/ladder projects on our Adirondack Coast will be successful as well.

  3. Puget sound area beautiful. Stationed in widbey Is naval air station and we used to fly over the San juans alot, even though water temp 55 degrees year round still saw sunbathers, yes some of the girls had bikinis on. 😉😉

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