Salmonid habitats in main-stem reaches of the Columbia and Snake rivers have changed dramatically during the past 60 years because of hydroelectric development and operation. Only about 13% and 58% of riverine habitats in the Columbia and Snake rivers, respectively, remain. Most riverine habitat is found in the upper Snake River; however, it is upstream of Hells Canyon Dam and not accessible to anadromous salmonids. We determined that approximately 661 and 805 km of the Columbia and Snake rivers, respectively, were once used by fall chinook salmon Oncorhynchus tshawytscha for spawning. Fall chinook salmon currently use only about 85 km of the main-stem Columbia River and 163 km of the main-stem Snake River for spawning. We used a geomorphic model to identify three river reaches downstream of present migration barriers with high potential for restoration of riverine processes: the Columbia River upstream of John Day Dam, the Columbia-Snake-Yakima River confluence, and the lower Snake River upstream of Little Goose Dam. Our analysis substantiated the assertion that historic spawning areas for fall chinook salmon occurred primarily within wide alluvial floodplains, which were once common in the mainstem Columbia and Snake rivers. These areas possessed more unconsolidated sediment and more bars and islands and had lower water surface slopes than did less extensively used areas. Because flows in the main stem are now highly regulated, the predevelopment alluvial river ecosystem is not expected to be restored simply by operational modification of one or more dams. Establishing more normative flow regimes - specifically, sustained peak flows for scouring - is essential to restoring the functional characteristics of existing, altered habitats. Restoring production of fall chinook salmon to any of these reaches also requires that population genetics and viability of potential seed populations (i.e., from tributaries, tailrace spawning areas, and hatcheries) be considered.
Additional publication details
Impacts of the Columbia River hydroelectric system on main-stem habitats of fall chinook salmon