REDDING, Calif. — If there is a hell for salmon, it probably looks like this.
There were many more golf balls in the water than salmon this summer, whacked there by enthusiasts at Aqua Golf, a driving range on the bank of the Sacramento River.
Below the surface, the gravel salmon need to make their nests had been mined decades ago to build Shasta Dam, 602 feet tall and with no fish passage. The dam cut off access to all of the cold mountain waters where these fish used to spawn.
The hillsides above the river were blackened by wildfire. Houses, instead of forests, stood along the banks. Cars roared by on Interstate 5 as temperatures soared to 105 degrees.
Yet the matriarchs of the orcas that frequent Puget Sound still remember the big winter chinook that used to thrive here. The fat, juicy fish are precious winter food for orcas at the southernmost end of their vast foraging range.
The orcas, called southern residents for a reason, cruise all the way to California to feed on Central Valley salmon runs. L pod was off Monterey early this year. The oldest whale among all the southern residents, L25, born about 1928, led the way. She brought her whole family because her mother did before her, and her grandmother before that. In the southern resident pods, the matriarchs lead the search for food — particularly in times of scarcity.
But was L pod chasing fish in California — or only L25’s memory of them? The fish have become so scarce, it is hard to know if the whales got any nourishment.
Jonathan Ambrose is working to reintroduce Sacramento winter chinook back to their high mountain waters, above the dam, in a last-ditch effort to beat extinction.
These fish can’t survive much longer where they are, said Ambrose, reintroduction coordinator for the Central Valley office of the National Marine Fisheries Service. The salmon are kept on life support with cold-water releases from the dam. But because of increasing water use for agriculture and growing human population — and heat and drought only expected to intensify with a warming planet — some years there isn’t enough cold water for fish.
Salmon still cruise under the Golden Gate Bridge in their journey to and from the sea. But San Francisco today is known for its tech boom and world-class urban amenities — not salmon.
Many people here have forgotten all about salmon, Ambrose said. They don’t know the Sacramento is a salmon river. That California is a salmon state. That orcas still come here, searching for salmon.
“People don’t even know what we used to have,” Ambrose said.
The decline of this river, once second in salmon production in the U.S. only to the Columbia River, is a cautionary tale, a time machine, depicting a possible future. What has happened to the Sacramento and its winter chinook could happen here, in the Northwest.
Lack of adequate available food is one of the main reasons the southern residents are spiraling toward extinction. Three were presumed dead this summer. Last year, mother orca Tahlequah raised worldwide dismay when she carried her dead calf for 17 days and more than 1,000 miles. There are only 73 southern residents left.
The whales made only a short visit to California waters this year because there isn’t much food there for them. And increasingly, the whales aren’t here in the Salish Sea much, either.
Mostly, they have remained on the coast searching for chinook.
As the orcas leave, more and more people arrive: Nearly 200 people a day are moving to the Puget Sound region, where the population, some 4 million people, is expected to grow to nearly 6 million by 2050.
In suburban Snohomish County, housing is burgeoning as Stillaguamish River chinook are declining. In Central Puget Sound, most of the Lower Green River is walled off behind levees. The Lower Duwamish, into which the Green flows, has been converted to an industrial waterway. Yet the Stillaguamish and the Green-Duwamish rivers are still crucial producers of the chinook the endangered orcas need.
On the Columbia and Snake rivers, another historic salmon stronghold, the Northwest region since 1981 has spent nearly $17 billion on fish and wildlife recovery, but has not budged a single salmon run from the endangered-species list. Puget Sound chinook also remain at high risk of extinction, despite 20 years of recovery efforts.
The region is on a path to repeat the history of decline seen everywhere that salmon have ever thrived. First in the rivers of Europe. Then the East Coast of North America. Then California.
In the Northwest there is no need to choose between salmon and prosperity, orcas and jobs.
“We have a chance to do what other parts of the country have not done to save what remains, restore what is lost, and essentially, to have it all,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine. “This is a battle for the soul of this region.”
The last stand in the Lower 48 for salmon and the orcas that depend on them is here. It is now. In the Northwest.
Billions spent, salmon still endangered
This cluster of slides, flumes and buildings looked like a water park in the middle of Washington wheat country.
Here at the Lower Granite Dam, 20 seasonal workers are crammed into trailers, plunging needles into the bellies of tiny fish to insert tracking tags. More incoming fish zipped their way, backward and uphill in translucent plastic piping to their work station. The fish were temporarily zonked with a knockout potion, aptly called Aqui-S, to make them easier to handle.
As the drug soaked in, the fish quieted, and workers standing in a line at a flume palmed each one to insert the tag. It enables managers to track the survival — or demise — of every salmon on its journey downriver from Lower Granite Dam, the inlandmost on the Lower Snake River, to Bonneville, more than 300 miles away, the last dam on the main-stem Columbia River before the Pacific.
But in this industrialized river system, many salmon do not swim at all. Instead, they are taken out of the river, put on a barge to cruise toward the ocean. It’s a strategy intended to spread the risk between salmon migrating in the river and those getting a ride.
It’s a dazzling and even bamboozling scene, as workers sort, tag and ship salmon that just minutes before were swimming downriver, minding their own business, until encountering a migration massively altered by hydroelectric dams that help power the region.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on alterations to the hydro system, trying to address the basic problem that a soft, tiny fish no longer than a finger is trying to get past a cement wall 100 feet high, and a battery of turbines grinding electricity from the current. And the fish must run this gantlet over and over again as they navigate as many as nine dams.
The Columbia still has banner years, in relative terms. But lately the tempo between good years and bad is quickening, and the wipeouts are getting worse.
The harmful effects of the highly altered rivers are worsened by climate change. Ocean conditions are depleting marine food webs, and rivers are warming in a one-two punch that has diminished salmon returns to some of the lowest numbers in decades.
Passage through long, slackwater reservoirs is perilous because salmon are cold-water animals. The cumulative effects of climate change are pushing water temperatures into the 70s in some reservoirs for more than a month at a time. The longer salmon are in warmer water, the more susceptible they are to disease and dying before they reach their home gravel to spawn.
Orca L25 was about 10 years old when the first dam, Bonneville, started churning out kilowatts in 1938. Today, for her family, and for human families all over the region, the stakes on the Columbia and Snake are high.
The dams are zero-carbon energy producers — critical as the region seeks to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels to fight global warming. Yet some orca experts maintain whale recovery is unlikely without removal of the four Lower Snake dams.
Dam removal on the Lower Snake has been at the heart of a more than 20-year court battle and political fight, with federal judges six times finding that federal agencies are not measuring up to salmon-recovery requirements in operation of the federal hydro-power system.
Passage for juvenile salmon has greatly improved, though a poorly understood phenomenon called “delayed mortality” that kicks in after the last dam, thought to be linked to stress from the hydro-power system, has made exact losses impossible to count.
This much is certain: historically the Snake is believed to have been the Columbia basin’s most productive drainage for salmon and steelhead. It’s supported more than 40 percent of all Columbia spring/summer chinook. But today these fish are at high risk of extinction. Some runs are already gone.
As people debate and argue about what to do, hungry whales are still looking — hard — for the fish that always sustained them, especially in the early spring. These Columbia and Snake fish are essential to the whales to carry them until the start of the summer-run salmon in the Salish Sea, their summer home. For as long as L25 can remember.
Seattle’s only river
A front-end loader pawed at a pile of scrap metal several stories high and heaped all the way to the river’s edge. Steel barges staged to tow shipping containers full of goods and materials to distant ports lined the west bank. One barge was stacked five containers high, and topped by a tour bus with a leaping orca painted on its side.
There is still real wildlife here. Sandpipers fluttered over a mud flat; a kingfisher cut across the river. A great blue heron stood ready to spear a meal, oblivious to the Geico Insurance gecko leering from a billboard just overhead.
To paddle the Lower Duwamish — into which the Green flows — is to witness all that can be done to a river without killing it.
The natural estuary and side-channel habitat is almost entirely eliminated — smothered in fill, or walled off with levees, dredged and straightened. The Lower Duwamish is no longer a river at all, but what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calls a waterway, an industrial shipping channel, to Elliott Bay.
To be sure, a lot of work has been done and is underway by governments, businesses, nonprofits and volunteers to restore the Green-Duwamish to health. A $342 million, 17-year Superfund cleanup is proceeding in the Lower Duwamish, with the goal of removing and remediating decades of toxic pollution. The Port of Seattle has completed more than 93 acres of habitat restoration in the watershed and Elliott Bay, and has a goal to do more. Community shoreline access and habitat improvements have brought life back to the Duwamish. All sorts of new directions and experiments are being pursued to improve water quality, even artificial floating wetland islands called “bio-barges.”
A Re-Green the Green program has been underway since 2016, with a goal of planting more than 2,300 acres of trees in the Green River watershed and Central Puget Sound area by 2025 to improve conditions for salmon.
It’s a tall order in an area hard-used to create the region’s wealth, and which for decades was paved and poisoned under practices mostly disallowed today.
“For so many years the river was just used as an open sewer,” said David Schumate, a retired engineer and river advocate who lives by the river and was dwarfed by the tailfins of parked Boeing aircraft as he paddled his canoe downstream.
The din of industrial machinery made it hard to talk amid a cacophony of traffic, rumbling airplanes and jet blasts from Boeing Field. Backup alarms, heavy equipment, banging, smashing, clanging. The roar of the kilns at multiple cement plants.
A Lime rental bicycle heaved in the river glowed green in the muddy brown water. Suddenly a fish jumped near Schumate’s paddle — to his shock: “I’m surprised there are any fish left in here at all.”
Rain started to pock the river, stoking discharge of wet-weather runoff, from all of the surrounding roofs, parking lots, roads, industrial facilities and junkyards that flows untreated into the river. Called stormwater, this runoff carries oil, grease, dirt, tire dust, soot from engine exhaust, and a witch’s brew of pollutants from any and every hard surface.
The blubber of orcas carries the poisons, which are in the fish they eat. When they go hungry, they burn their fat, releasing contaminants into their bloodstream, where they can compromise their health. Orca babies carry the highest levels of contaminants relative to their weight because of the load of pollutants they take on from their mothers’ fat-rich milk.
Eric Warner, research team leader for the fish division of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, knows from experience that the Green-Duwamish still is treated as a dumping ground. Even an Acura turned up during one cleanup effort, Warner said. “You hear about the need for large woody debris in the water for salmon. Well, we have shopping carts instead.”
This is one of the most important rivers in the state, both for the survival of Puget Sound chinook and for southern resident orcas that eat them. Yet just like the orca and the salmon, the Green-Duwamish is fighting for its life.
More than 80% of the Lower Green River already has been walled off from its floodplain, with levees intended to protect billions of dollars worth of property and what has become the second-largest warehouse industry on the West Coast.
Managing even more growth and population yet to come with salmon and orcas in mind comes down to day-to-day decisions in places like this.
“This is basically a ditch,” said Katie Beaver, Lower Green River Basin Steward for King County, watching the river beaten and banished between walls of the Desimone levee, intended to protect portions of Kent, Renton and Tukwila from flooding. Here the board of the King County Flood Control District, composed of all nine Metropolitan King County Council members, approved in 2013 construction of a set-back levee with a rock-armored shore and steel wall.
Other county officials had proposed an alternate plan, to set the levee much farther back and provide flood protection along with environmental benefits, including better fish habitat. The flood district has built levees like that, including in Auburn. But this time, the flood district board went for the faster, cheaper choice, with less property acquisition from local businesses.
Mature trees were cut to build it, and plantings intended to provide shade died. Much of the site, but for some willows, bakes in the sun in a river already hurting for shade.
“It shows we have these good intentions and lofty aspirations and reassuring words about commitment to the environment, but when push comes to shove, the majority of the County Council, the Legislature, and the mayor and City Council in Kent, no one was willing to do the right thing,” Constantine said.
A new process is underway now to create a long-term comprehensive flood-management plan for the river. Tribes, state agencies, county officials, the city of Seattle and many nonprofit conservation groups see a once-in-a-generation chance to set the Green-Duwamish on a course that protects property while also supporting salmon and orca recovery. “Why can’t we think outside the box?” Beaver said.
“Politics gets us stuck. Let’s think about this, not only in terms of what is there today, but what could be … We need to raise the awareness that this river is an asset.”
Municipalities, real-estate developers and farmers, meanwhile, are arguing for more levees — one option under consideration would build nearly 30 more miles of walls.
Even where there is consensus, such as on providing passage for fish into the upper watershed, the Green-Duwamish is still awaiting bold action to boost salmon and orca survival.
In the upper Green, Howard Hanson Dam rises. It was completed in 1962 in part to manage flooding, particularly in the heavily developed lower reach of the river in places including Auburn, Tukwila and Kent.
Built without fish passage, this federal dam walls off more than 100 miles upstream of river and side channels, spawning habitat just waiting for chinook, chum, coho and steelhead.
Despite decades of talk and more than $100 million spent, there still is no fish passage at the Howard Hanson.
All parties agree this dam operated by the Corps of Engineers should provide fish passage. “The only controversy is why it is taking so long,” said Fred Goetz, Endangered Species Act coordinator for the corps’ Seattle district office.
The agency started building a juvenile fish-passage facility here but quickly busted the project budget. With $108 million spent, the corps stopped work in 2011. By now work has been stalled for so long, the process to design, approve and fund the work needs to be restarted.
NOAA has set a deadline to begin fish passage at the dam — in 2031.
“This may be the most important single project that can be done for salmon recovery in Puget Sound. We have a tremendous opportunity here,” Goetz said. “The continuous decline of the orca is not helped if we are not able to accomplish these big missions.”
Suburban sprawl, and what remains
As the region grows, salmon and the orcas are in a race against time. To find the most endangered salmon in Puget Sound, head to some of its fastest developing landscapes: the suburbs.
More growth means more people and, depending on how growth is managed, more pollution and runoff, as forests and open spaces that absorb rainwater and pollution are paved or converted to housing, shopping centers, office parks — and all the rest.
Lack of affordable housing in cities is making the problem worse.
Seattle’s boom has brought more and more people chasing six-figure tech jobs — and pushed people of more modest means fleeing high housing costs and traffic and construction mayhem to places like Suncrest Farms, 42 miles from Seattle in Granite Falls, Snohomish County.
Granite Falls, near the Stillaguamish River, notched the second fastest rate of growth among cities in the four-county central Puget Sound region in 2018-2019, state records show. One reason is affordability. At Suncrest Farms, $434,995 — about half the median home price in Seattle — buys a 2,668-square-foot single-family home with a yard and a three-car garage.
“Sold out of inventory, more coming soon!” says the sign stuck in the ground not far from where swing sets stand at the ready in backyards for the families flocking here, to enjoy a lifestyle with more space, for less money.
“Whoever would have thought that affordable housing and transportation would be our biggest conservation challenges?” said Jeff Davis, director of conservation for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. A recent congressional tour of the south Sound, where pavement also is pressing deeper into the remaining bastions for salmon, left him in despair.
While restoration work is underway all over the state, Davis knows habitat loss is outpacing the gains. He doesn’t want his 9-year-old daughter to have to go to a museum to see a chinook.
For Shawn Yanity, Stillaguamish tribal chairman, that day is already here.
Yanity eyes silvery chinook circling in a tank, ghostly in the light of the hatchery. This captive-brood facility is a living gene bank for what has become one of the most endangered chinook runs in the state.
Some years, there have not even been enough fish in the Stillaguamish to put salmon on the table for tribal ceremonies. The tribe has had to buy fish — and serve chicken and ham instead. What is being lost is a cultural heritage, a practice and way of life that isn’t replicated with chicken dinners.
“It’s the teachings, the stories the elders tell, the protocol and preparation for fishing and hunting,” Yanity said.
The captive brood is both necessary, he said, and crushing: “I don’t want to see my culture in a tank.”
Western Washington tribes with a treaty right to fish fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to compel repairs to fish-blocking state highway culverts, to help boost the runs.
But it will take more than a paper victory promising hypothetical fish to put salmon back on tribal tables and in orca mouths, Yanity said. Many repairs done so far are stranded investments unless repairs made by the state are matched by local governments, fixing their culverts that block habitat, too, upstream and down, Yanity said.
Despite it all, he has faith in the fish and the orcas that depend on them. Salmon and steelhead even rebounded in the Toutle River in Southwest Washington after the eruption of Mount St. Helens.
Environmental laws are making a difference, from the Clean Water Act to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Puget Sound is cleaner today than it was a generation ago. Gray whales, seals, harbor porpoises and the transient orcas that eat them have rebounded since hunting marine mammals was prohibited. Even humpbacks are making a comeback.
Where investments have been made to restore the natural abundance of their habitat, fish have boomed back.
After the largest dam removal in the world, more chinook are returning to the Elwha River than in a generation. The Coastal Watershed Institute of Port Angeles, a research nonprofit, also has documented more surf smelt along the nearshore of the Elwha. That’s a response to dam removal that restarted the river’s natural flow of sediment, and the institute’s restoration work tearing out shoreline armoring to restore the beach.
A healthy beach hops with bugs on soft sand, essential spawning ground for sand lance and surf smelt. These forage fish, as well as herring, feed the salmon that feed the orcas.
In bays and coves along Puget Sound, herring persist. Their jewel-like eggs sparkle on eelgrass beds brought back by local preservation nonprofits, government restoration projects and even individual families choosing to tear out bulkheads and riprap, or keep their shoreline natural.
Just west of the mouth of the Elwha, sunbeams filter through turquoise water and alight on herring in silvery torrents twining through lush kelp forests. The herring surge, flashing like a constellation of stars. Fat young of the year, these are the little fish that will feed big chinook.
“It’s working,” says Anne Shaffer, executive director of the Coastal Watershed Institute. “Don’t give up. Keep going.”
No opportunity goes unnoticed by plants and animals ready to take advantage. Even at a tiny pocket beach scooped out from riprap and fill at the Olympic Sculpture Park near the heart of downtown Seattle, the water is alive. Crabs hustle over a habitat bench built to support the sea wall but also to shelter and nurture the living shore. Juvenile chinook make their way along the sunlit shallows. Perch glitter, squads of herring patrol the current and kelp is taking root.
Even the Lower Duwamish Waterway, forgotten and left for dead by so many, is still very much alive.
One morning this summer, Muckleshoot tribal members hauled in chinook salmon in a 12-hour overnight fishery in Elliott Bay and a stretch of the Lower Duwamish to the Highway 99 bridge.
Amid the homeless camps, the cement factories, the traffic banging over the grated bridge decks, here was a harvest as old as Puget Sound, still going on, for generations uncounted of salmon, and people.
Ask Nick Elkins, 25, why he wants to stay up all night fishing for chinook on this river and he has an instant answer. It’s not the money — he caught only five fish, selling three and keeping two for his family. “It’s the beautiful fish.”
And beautiful they were: chrome bright, their eyes wide with the mystery of all they had seen in four years at sea.
This is their home river, and despite it all, the Green-Duwamish is still every year either the first, second or third biggest producer of chinook in all of Puget Sound.
The fish runs here — although a shadow of what once was, from Puget Sound to the Columbia and Snake — are a miracle of survival that proves what is still possible for salmon and for orcas if given a chance.
The orcas still seek these fish on the coast, in the Salish Sea and even all the way into the urban waters of Puget Sound, hunting chum, coho and chinook. The special time for Seattle-area residents is when the southern residents, in their final seasonal rounds of the year, come here at last. Downtown killer whales. Who else has that?
Sometimes the southern residents were here for days on end, thrilling ferry riders and people flocking to beaches to watch orcas blow and breach, right off shore. One day last November, J, K and L pods were all here at once. Dozens of orcas were cartwheeling and spy hopping, right past the Superfund site of the Asarco Smelter at Ruston, right past the dense-pack housing along the shores of central Puget Sound.
They sculled upside-down, slapped their pecs and flukes seemingly just for fun, maybe just to hear the resonant, smacking sound.
As the sunset painted the water gold, people turned out on beaches and shorelines from Maury Island to West Seattle, enchanted all over again at what it means to live here. In a place still alive, with salmon, and with orcas on the hunt.
The Northwest is not California, where people have forgotten what they used to have. Not yet.
At stake, as the region gets richer, is whether it also will get poorer. With only the grandmother orcas remembering what used to be.
Photographer: Steve Ringman
Project editor: Benjamin Woodard
Photo editor: Fred Nelson
Videographer: Ramon Dompor
Video editor: Lauren Frohne
Graphic artist: Emily M. Eng
Art director and designer: Frank Mina
Producer: Jeff Albertson
Copy editor: Laura Gordon