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15 Basin Tribes, Canadian First Nations Issue Report On Restoring Upper Columbia Salmon Passage
Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 (PST)

Restoring salmon passage to long-blocked habitat in the upper Columbia River basin in the United States and Canada should be investigated and implemented as a key element of integrating ecosystem considerations into a new Columbia River Treaty, according to a report developed by a coalition of 15 Columbia River basin tribes and Canadian First Nations.


Epic flooding in 1948 up and down the Columbia prompted discussions between the two countries about how the river might be harnessed to provide flood control and produce electricity for a growing region. The Columbia headwaters are in British Columbia; it flows down through Washington and then heads west along the Oregon-Washington border to the Pacific Ocean.


The result of those discussions was the Columbia River Treaty, which was signed in 1961. Implementation of its terms began in 1964. The treaty primarily reduced flood risk and supported hydropower generation, the two outstanding concerns of the day.


While the Treaty has no specified end date, it contains provisions that will change its implementation in 2024. Either country may unilaterally terminate most provisions of the Treaty in 2024. Each is expected to announce their intentions later this year.


The construction of four storage reservoirs on the Columbia River system remain the most obvious result of the treaty. Together, the three dams built in Canada (Duncan, Mica and Keenleyside -- also known as Arrow in the United States) doubled the amount of water that could be stored, adding 15.5 million acre-feet of capacity that can be used to absorb potential flood water and also control the flow of water downstream for power generation and other uses. Libby Dam in Montana created another large storage reservoir, Lake Koocanusa.


Discussions about possible treaty renewals have included requests from some parties that a third treaty purpose be added – the consideration of water management on ecosystem function throughout the system. Since the early 1990, 13 Columbia and Snake river salmon and steelhead species have been listed under the Endangered Species Act. The region’s system of dams, which in some cases block access to historic habitat and otherwise change river dynamics, are considered one the major reasons for the decline of such species.


Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams in the central Washington and Keenleyside, Brilliant and Waneta dams in British Columbia have long blocked fish passage upstream. The first phase of Grand Coulee was completed in 1941 without passage for either upstream or downstream migrants. Chief Joseph’s first 16 turbine units were in place by 1961, effectively blocking fish 50 miles downstream from Grand Coulee.


“The bilateral damming and management of the upper Columbia River, initiated with the construction of Grand Coulee Dam, is responsible for the loss of over 1,100 miles (1,770 km) of salmon and steelhead habitat above Chief Joseph Dam and the loss of about 3 million salmon harvested and consumed by indigenous peoples throughout the basin annually,” according to the report, “Fish Passage and Reintroduction into the U.S. and Canadian Upper Columbia River,” which was released Feb. 14. The interim joint paper of the U.S. Columbia Basin Tribes and Canadian First Nations” was forwarded to the U.S. and Canadian “entities” charged with evaluating the future of the treaty and, potentially, negotiating any changes in the terms of the treaty.


The report can be found at


Prior to dam construction, an estimated 1.1 million sockeye, chinook, steelhead and coho salmon returned to the rivers above Grand Coulee annually on average, of which about 644,000 fish were harvested by tribal members. The paper says that total salmon consumption by the Spokane, Kalispell, Coeur d’Alene, Kootenai and Colville tribes in the United States ranged from 6.8 to 13.1 million pounds per year in the Upper Columbia. Only the Colvilles now have direct access to returning salmon.


“It appears that salmon and steelhead populations arising from the blocked areas of the upper Columbia River may have accounted for an average of about 2 million fish harvested by tribes in the lower Columbia River,” the paper says.


First Nations members historically caught as many as 746,000 salmon annually, according to estimates.


The paper “is meant to inform the U.S. Entity, the Canadian Entity, our respective federal governments and other sovereigns of the elements of the tribes’ and First Nations’ proposal for integrating fish passage as an essential element of modernizing the Columbia River Treaty. This is a bilateral effort that will require international actions under the Treaty.”


“The Columbia Basin tribes and First Nations believe this comprehensive approach would right many historical wrongs that Columbia River development imposed on indigenous peoples by separating us from our salmon and other fishery resources integral to our culture, subsistence, health and economic well being,” according to the paper’s cover letter to the U.S. Entity (made up of top officials from the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).


“Reintroduction of salmon and other species is proposed through a pragmatic and phased approach to fish passage planning, research, testing, and design/construction and would be followed by monitoring, evaluation, and adaptive management,” according to the tribal paper.


“Each phase of this ecosystem recovery program would be pursued based on the knowledge gained and successful outcomes from previous phases. With recent and significant advancements in transboundary collaboration and legal and technical knowledge, Columbia River Treaty reconsideration is the appropriate opportunity to reconcile the consequences of past, narrowly focused decisions on river development and operations.”


The tribal proposals says that “fish reintroduction should proceed initially with passage planning and experimental trials with sockeye and chinook salmon, the species that were once numerous in the upper Columbia and essential to indigenous subsistence and cultures.


“These species are also more likely to successfully propagate and migrate from the streams and reservoirs in the blocked areas. Donor populations for experimental trials, passage testing, and initial reintroduction would be from stocks not listed under the Endangered Species Act to avoid regulatory hurdles and conflicts with current land and water uses. Reintroduction of coho salmon, steelhead trout, lamprey and passage for resident fish species could be subsequently considered,” the paper says.


Investigations would include upstream and downstream passage options and design experimental reintroduction past upper Columbia River dams and reservoirs, incuding:

--Passage options for adults at Chief Joseph, Grand Coulee, and Canadian dams.

-- Alternative technologies for guiding and transporting smolts through Lake Roosevelt and around Grand Coulee Dam (and other projects).


Studies should also evaluate the socio-economic benefits of returning salmon to the Upper Columbia basin, for tribes and First Nations, and non-native peoples, including recreational, subsistence and commercial fishers.


“Several options exist for funding the planning, testing, construction, and implementation of fish passage facilities and reintroduction actions. Funding avenues should be the subject of negotiations between the United States and Canada during treaty reconsideration,” the paper says.


Actual construction and operation of fish passage facilities could 1) follow normal mitigation practices of each country at its own projects, or 2) proceed through a new, bilateral arrangement that recognizes a holistic approach to water and fish management, the paper says.


“Under the current mitigation practice in the U.S., project beneficiaries have been identified and cost allocation formulas emplaced for Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams that could apply to fish passage mitigation,” the paper says. “The U.S. also has flexibility with funding, i.e. via congressional funding or regional payment procedures for fish mitigation facilities per the Northwest Power Act.”


For more information see:


-- CBB, Nov. 27, 2013, “Columbia River Treaty Prompts Discussion Of Restoring Salmon Passage To Canadian Headwaters”


-- CBB, Nov. 1, 2013, “Columbia River Treaty Negotiations Will Impact Libby Dam Operations, Reservoir Drafting/Refill”


-- CBB, Oct. 18, 2013, “B.C. Releases Draft Columbia River Treaty Recommendations, Wants Full Accounting Of U.S. Benefits”


-- CBB, Sept. 27, 2013, “U.S. Releases Draft Recommendations For ‘Modernizing’ Columbia River Treaty”


-- CBB, Aug. 16, 2013, “Environmentalists Say Columbia River Treaty Needs To Expand To Include ‘Ecosystem-Based Functions”’


-- CBB, Aug. 9, 2013, “Utilities Group Expresses Concern With Columbia River Treaty Draft Recommendations, Process, Scope”


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