Opinion: There is historical and genetic evidence confirming that salmon once existed in the Similkameen River above the dam site

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Record-low salmon returns, habitat loss, dams and a rapidly changing climate continue to impact B.C. watersheds, as well as the communities that depend upon them.

Yet, there is a unique opportunity in B.C.’s southern Interior to address a number of these issues as part of an international effort to restore a major waterway.

The Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C., an umbrella organization representing 60 conservation and outdoor recreation groups, has called for the B.C. government to work with the U.S. to help remove the defunct, century-old Enloe Dam, located south of Osoyoos in Washington state, on the Similkameen River.

The Enloe dam was constructed in 1920 but has not produced electricity since 1958. The dam was also never equipped with fish ladders, so it eliminated salmon and steelhead runs from the Similkameen River and its tributaries in both the U.S. and British Columbia.

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There is now growing support on both sides of the border to remove the dam. With a clear mandate to develop new strategies to protect and revitalize B.C.’s waterways, our provincial government has an excellent opportunity to work with its U.S. counterparts to remove this non-functioning dam and embark on an inspiring transboundary project to restore the river’s natural ecosystem.

As a university student in the late ’60s, I saw the Enloe Dam near Oroville, Washington, for the first time. Spanning the river, the massive wall of concrete seemed so out of place in an otherwise pristine-like setting. While that alone bothered me, it was made all the worse by the fact the dam was inoperable.

Shortly after that experience, I had the opportunity to paddle the full length of the Similkameen on the Canadian side of the border. I was struck by the river’s beauty and richness as it runs from its headwaters in Manning Park past the towns of Princeton, Hedley, Keremeos and Cawston before entering the United States.

It’s an amazing waterway in every respect and yet, its ecosystem has been significantly altered for over a century because of the dam on its lower reaches.

While there was previous interest in removing the dam, those efforts didn’t make any headway because the Public Utility District, which operates the dam, stated its intention to upgrade the structure. However, that never happened, and the dam’s owners now say that its renovation is no longer feasible due to costs. The dam is now in a complete state of disrepair and will likely fail, or collapse, in the years ahead. Such an event would be extremely damaging to the river.

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There is historical and genetic evidence confirming that salmon once existed in the Similkameen River above the dam site. Salmon proteins deposited in sediments over a century ago have been detected, most recently in Palmer Lake more than 30 kilometres above the dam’s location. In addition, in the early ’70s, I met with elders on the Canadian side of the river, in both Hedley and Cawston, who distinctly remembered salmon being in the river in the early 1900s before the dam’s construction.

As governments in both countries begin to engage on this issue, it’s essential to recognize that the immediate area around the dam’s location, and the cascading nature of the river itself, is very significant to the Indigenous people of the Okanagan. Hence, efforts to remove the dam must be done in concert with Indigenous governments with a major emphasis on naturalizing the river and restoring its historic profile.

Presently, the Coville tribal government in Washington state is assessing the state of sediment that has collected behind the dam which, in turn, will help determine the best and safest way to remove the structure.

We are now at a point where government action is required and, while this is an American dam, it’s situated on a cross-boundary river. Hence, removing the dam is a great chance for both Canada and the U.S. to work together to do something that would be incredibly positive for this great river.

In recent years I have witnessed salmon jumping at the base of the dam in a hopeless effort to get through. It was a heartbreaking thing to see. But, at the same time, it made me believe these amazing fish would one day return to the Similkameen on the Canadian side, if only given the chance.

Mark Angelo is rivers chair of the Outdoor Recreation Council and the founder and chair of both B.C. and World Rivers day. He’s a recipient of both the Order of Canada and the Order of B.C. for his river conservation efforts and is chair emeritus of the BCIT Rivers Institute. As a longtime river advocate and conservationist, he has paddled well over 1,000 rivers around the globe, including the full length of the Similkameen. 

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