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Renegotiation of Columbia River Treaty offers hope for salmon, tribes

By Larry Pynn, October 6, 2021

Indigenous people know the Columbia River as the Great River—Nch’i-Wana in the Sahaptin language of American tribes who have occupied its basin for millennia in Washington and Oregon states. Great is unequivocal, for the river drains an area larger than France while connecting the diverse geography, culture, and politics of two nations and their seven states and one province.

The Columbia River begins its 2,000-kilometer journey—longer than any other in the Pacific Northwest—on Canadian soil at Columbia Lake in the Rocky Mountain Trench of southeastern British Columbia. The river flows northwest before lashing around the northern end of the Selkirk Mountains and heading south in earnest. By the time it muscles into the United States the river has completed almost 40 percent of its journey.

Once across the border, the waters flow south and west through semi-arid Washington State. On its final push, the Columbia forms the fluid border between Washington and Oregon before succumbing to the salty embrace of the Pacific Ocean.

For all its superlatives, the Columbia is a tamed and diminished river.

A total of 14 major hydroelectric dams rise from the Columbia’s main stem—three in Canada and 11 in the US, constructed between 1938 to 1973. That number swells to more than 450 dams when a spider’s web of tributaries is included.

These dams and their reservoirs have exacted a heavy toll— erasing cultural and village sites, damaging fish habitat, and presenting a deadly impediment to migrating fish.

An estimated 10 to 16 million salmon and steelhead annually returned to the Columbia River basin before the late 1800s. Today, on average, just over two million fish return, and only 40 percent are naturally produced.

Can the river ever regain its greatness?

The answer to that question may hinge on renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty, ratified by Canada and the United States in 1964.

The treaty is a trans-boundary water agreement that resulted in the construction of four dams—three dams in Canada, and one in the US that flooded Canada—to generate hydro-electric power and reduce downstream flooding of communities by controlling the flow of the river.

Prior to the dams, a devastating flood on the lower Columbia River in 1948 inundated more than 100,000 hectares of farmland, killed at least 51 people, and left thousands homeless. The community of Vanport, a wartime housing development near Portland, Oregon, with a population of close to 20,000, effectively washed away.

Under terms of the treaty, the US prepaid the BC government CDN $64 million for a 60-year period for downstream flood-control benefits.

BC continues to benefit in others ways. The dams covered by the treaty generate more electricity downstream in the US; half of this extra amount goes to BC to be used within the province or sold at market prices. The so-called “Canadian entitlement” has amounted to an annual average of $128.9 million over the past decade.

The treaty was so focussed on flooding and power generation it contained not a word about salmon or Indigenous fishing rights—both of which are inextricably tied to the river’s greatness—and led to decades of environmental abuse and degradation of habitats.

Today, the US and Canada are renegotiating the treaty for the first time since the original signing, and this time around there is a willingness to right those wrongs.

Fixing the Columbia River will be a challenge, demanding ingenuity and international cooperation.

SALMON-PROOF DAMS

It’s a sunny afternoon when I arrive at Chief Joseph Dam, close to the town of Bridgeport, Washington, to witness the return of the chinook.

The blast of propane canons—a bird deterrent in nearby apple orchards—shatters the desert air. An American flag adds a splash of colour hanging from the dam’s dull-grey exterior. Industrial power lines march toward the horizon above tawny grasslands and the yellow bloom of sagebrush.

Chief Joseph Dam is an insurmountable obstacle on the salmon’s return journey, 877 kilometres upstream from the mouth of the Columbia River.

The dam is named after the former leader of the Nez Perce Tribe who fought US government efforts to restrict his people to reservation lands in the late 1800s. Joseph, whose Indigenous name Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it means “thunder rolling down the mountain,” died in 1904 of what a doctor described as a broken heart. The 2,600-megawatt dam is mighty, but in one way only: producing enough electricity to meet the entire needs of metropolitan Seattle. Its environmental record is heartbreaking.

The Columbia River and its tributaries are home to four species of Pacific salmon—chinook, sockeye, chum, and coho—as well as steelhead, a species that returns to sea after spawning. Only pink salmon no longer live in the watershed.

Chinook, the largest of Pacific salmon, strong enough and lucky enough to complete their life cycle, return to the Columbia River to accomplish one of the greatest feats of any animal migration on earth.

During a round-trip of some 4,000 kilometres—half in fresh water, half in the Pacific Ocean—they’re pursued by natural predators at every turn. They dodge the nets and hooks of sport, commercial, and subsistence fisheries, and endure the less obvious threat of global warming disrupting water temperatures and food supply.

But even surviving all this, beating the unlikeliest of odds, may not be enough where hydroelectric power rules supreme.

I stand alongside Matt McDaniel, hatchery manager with Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, at the water’s edge on a wooden platform normally reserved for tribal dip-net fishers. None are here today. “There’s not much quality left,” he explains, alluding to the fact the fish are spawned out and dying. “The meat is kind of mushy.”

That does not deter us in our appreciation of the stragglers. “Such resilience,” says McDaniel, a colourful tattoo of the salmon’s life cycle leaping from his right wrist. “Think of everything they’ve gone through. It’s amazing they make it back.”

These chinook spend up to five years at sea, traveling as far north as the Gulf of Alaska before answering the inexorable call of their natal waters. Over the years, the returns and the average size of the fish have diminished on the river—again, with human intervention to blame. These days chinook average 15 kilograms, one-third of historic sizes. “Can we ever bring back a 100-pound chinook?” McDaniel ponders. “I’d say no. Everyone likes a big fish and those big-fish genes have been fished out.”

Chief Joseph is the second biggest producer of hydroelectricity in the United States after Grand Coulee Dam, which lies about 80 kilometres upstream. The US Army Corps of Engineers built these two dams in 1955 and 1942 without fish ladders, effectively writing off 55 percent of historical salmon habitat in in the upper Columbia River.

As evidence of just how much attitudes have changed, three US agencies—the Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bonneville Power Administration—agreed in a September 2020 report to make improvements to 14 federal dams on the Columbia River system that have hurt salmon and Indigenous communities. “It is difficult to overstate the effects the Columbia River (power system) has had on tribal culture, way of life, and traditions,” states an environmental impact study that preceded the agreement.

Case in point: completion of The Dalles Dam in 1957 flooded Celilo Falls, an important cultural site where tribes gathered for some 11,000 years to catch salmon, trade, and socialize. Villages on both sides of the falls also drowned under the dam's reservoir.

Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark documented the “Great Mart of all this Country,” estimating in 1805 and 1806 between 7,400 and 10,400 Indigenous people lived permanently or seasonally in the area as far downstream as Cascade Rapids — today, the site of Bonneville Dam, about 75 kilometres below The Dalles.

The US multi-agency report focused on achieving a balance between the traditional theme of power production and the new challenge of improving salmon habitat. Among the solutions proposed: reconfigure dams where feasible to make them less harmful to fish; a more flexible water-release system to benefit fish migration; invest in efforts to reduce predation by birds and marine mammals.

But critics say the measures fall short. A coalition of environmental and fishing groups is taking the federal government to court — the latest in a long series of legal actions related to salmon management on the Columbia River system.

In Idaho, one congressman has lost patience with the proposed solutions and has backed a US$33-billion plan to remove four dams on Idaho’s lower Snake River starting in 2030. The Columbia’s largest tributary, the Snake River runs from Wyoming, to Idaho, to Washington and Oregon.

There are signs of political progress in the international treaty renegotiations, with First Nations’ representation for the first time promising change from business as usual.

Meetings began in May 2018 and are typically held every few months, alternating between Canada and the United States. Either side can unilaterally cancel the treaty starting in 2024 with 10 years’ notice.

FIRST NATIONS TAKE A STAND

In 2019, Canada announced that three First Nations whose territories extend to the upper reaches of the Columbia River—Ktunaxa, Okanagan, and Secwépemc—would receive official observer status at the otherwise closed treaty-negotiation meetings.

Indigenous nations have an integral role in formulating the Canadian position, working closely with government representatives. “Boy, they keep us honest,” says Sylvain Fabi, Canada’s lead negotiator on the Columbia River Treaty. “Not that I have a tendency to be dishonest. But they keep us…on our toes.”

Indigenous representatives present an unwavering voice for salmon in a revised treaty. “This time we want to make sure it’s a clear intent and objective within the whole renegotiations,” says Nathan Matthew, Secwépemc senior political advisor.

Canadian representatives also share common ground on a desire to take an ecosystem approach to managing the dams when renegotiating the treaty, and to explore ways to reintroduce salmon into the upper Columbia River basin.

“It’s much broader than salmon or fish, but wetlands, migratory waterfowl…how vegetation, water, soil, biota, and atmosphere interact with each other,” says Kathy Eichenberger, executive director in BC’s Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources and
the provinces’ lead on the negotiations. British Columbia is also expected to provide First Nations with a share of economic benefits flowing from a renegotiated treaty.

The US has three tribal representatives on its team to assist in negotiations as technical expert advisers on ecosystem issues, says Jim Heffernan, policy analyst with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

And while the practicalities of reintroducing salmon to the upper Columbia remain a matter of debate, Hefferman says Columbia basin tribes are on record supporting a regional recommendation that the U.S. and Canada "investigate and, if warranted,” restore salmon passage and reintroduce salmon to Canadian spawning grounds above the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams.

The November 2020 election of Democratic President Joe Biden also hints that tribal voices may soon carry more weight. Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico and a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe was appointed Secretary of the Interior, responsible for the Corps of Engineers. “There is reason for optimism,” says Heffernan. “The view of the tribes will be taken much more seriously under this administration.”

In 2013, salmon were thrown a lifeline in the waters just below Chief Joseph Dam. The Bonneville Power Administration constructed a salmon hatchery and fish ladder, kickstarting the operation with wild and hatchery brood stock from the Okanogan River watershed, which flows into the Columbia River downstream.

The returning chinook work their way up the ladder and into the hatchery just uphill from the river to be artificially spawned. The juveniles are later released back into the river to complete their life cycle—without ever seeing the waters above Chief Joseph Dam.

Problem is, the hatchery this day has reached its capacity of 1,850 adult chinook for breeding purposes. The ladder, which consists of water flowing over a series of concrete steps to simulate a stream, has been closed at the river’s edge.

But the salmon simply switch their attention to the hatchery’s effluent outfall pipe, which continues to flow next to the ladder, and propel themselves head-first against its metal gate. Others leap onto the rip-rap shoreline to become wedged amongst the boulders, struggling and gasping their last breaths.
McDaniel acknowledges the sadness of the scene unfolding before us, guessing that hundreds or perhaps even thousands of fish are blocked from spawning this way. But he explains that allowing more chinook into the hatchery might threaten them all. “We can only hold so many fish before it becomes a health issue,” he says. “If you stick a whole bunch of people in a room and they’re stressed out and one is sick, then everyone gets sick.” Without hatcheries, some rivers would have little or no salmon returning to spawn.

One of the critical goals for Indigenous peoples on both sides of the border during the Columbia River Treaty talks is to find a way to get the salmon onto their historical habitat beyond Chief Joseph and the Grand Coulee dam.

One company touting a technological fix is hopeful that the treaty talks can present an opportunity to make it happen, starting at Chief Joseph Dam.

Whooshh Innovations, based in the Seattle area, is proposing to propel adult fish up and over the dam through a system reminiscent of an old-style pneumatic tube, employing compressed air to scoot the salmon to their destination. The system—also known as a salmon cannon—avoids the need to construct fish ladders along with the ensuing loss of hydro-electric power from diverting water down those ladders.

Whooshh spent US$2-million of its own money for a small-scale demonstration of the technology’s potential in September 2019 below Chief Joseph Dam.

One year later, the Canadian government paid the company US$4.45-million in 2020 to move 8,200 salmon—US$548 per fish—past a massive slide impeding upstream migration near Big Bar in BC’s Fraser River canyon.

Later that same year, Canada took a more conventional route, announcing it would spend CDN$176.3 million for design and construction of a permanent fishway at the Big Bar landslide to be up and running before the start of salmon migration in 2022.

Vince Bryan, Whooshh’s chief executive officer, remains optimistic as Canada and the US mull options for salmon enhancement under a renegotiated treaty. “If the question is, ‘are we worried that we can get the fish up over the dams safely,’ not at all.”

Some dams are friendlier to salmon than others.

WELLS DAM FRIENDLIER THAN MOST

To reach the dam with the greatest success allowing passage of migrating fish I drive 50 kilometres downstream of Chief Joseph dam, hugging the writhing shoreline of the Columbia River — north, then west, then south — before reaching Wells Dam.

Opened in 1967, the drab concrete dam is an unlikely symbol of hope: more than 96 percent of juvenile chinook and steelhead survive passing the dam and its Lake Pateros reservoir.

Wells Dam features 10 generating turbines and 11 spillways. A fish bypass system completed in 1989 modified the upper portions of five of the spillways, allowing for gates to be lowered and the juveniles to move along with the flowing water; the rest of the spillways are blocked off to the fish. The intakes for the turbines are located deeper in the dam where the juvenile fish tend not to swim.

Wells attracts interest from operators from elsewhere on the river seeking to improve conditions for young salmon. “For passing fish, we’re number one by far,” recently retired operations supervisor Brian Hicks says with pride.

Hicks was raised on a farm in the small farming town of Mansfield just over the hill from the dam, and when it opened he was there as a seven-year-old. “Little did I know I’d spend 30 years looking back at the hill out the windows here.”

Providing me with a tour of the 840-megawatt facility—enough to power 420,000 homes—Hicks describes the dam as a 60-meter-tall building turned upside down, the top at water level and the rest below.

Juvenile salmon shoot through the spillways and tumble out the downstream side temporarily dazed and vulnerable to predators. A series of thin low-tech wires with streamers stretch across the river to deter marauding gulls from taking advantage.

When the adults return to spawn, staff monitor video screens and count salmon migrating upstream over fish ladders on each side of the dam. In 2020, a total of 66,870 chinook migrated upstream of Wells Dam to spawning areas and hatcheries in the Columbia, Methow, and Okanogan rivers.

On one occasion, a worker spotted a beaver making its own harrowing journey along a ladder. “It was a little scary,” recalls veteran fish-counter Betty Walters. “It was going through, just like a fish. He came back a few times then he finally went through.”

About midway between Wells Dam and Chief Joseph lies the mouth of the Okanogan River — some of the best immediate hope for improving salmon returns with international cooperation. At 185 kilometres in length, the river is barely one-tenth of the Snake River, but excels in other ways.

The Okanogan’s sockeye salmon runs are the largest in the Columbia system. To reach their natal streams, they swim through Wells Dam, then take a sharp left turn and head to the Canadian border without ever reaching Chief Joseph.

CROSS-BORDER TRIBUTARY OFFERS HOPE

From Wells Dam, I drive north, on Highway 97, against the flow of the Okanogan, following the wake of salmon returning to spawn.

A gentle scenic river, the Okanogan burbles though agricultural lands and furrowed hills, and exposed bluffs and talus slopes laced with tracks of mule deer. The waters create a thin but vibrant corridor of green in a desert landscape, offering an oasis for parched rural communities and fuel for irrigation systems.
The river adopts a subtle name change, Okanagan, at the international boundary. Ahead lies the warm waters of Osoyoos Lake and a valley bottom ripe with tourists, orchards, and vineyards. Further north, the journey continues to Vaseux Lake and Oliver—the self-professed Wine Capital of Canada.

Here, almost unseen to the tourists, something remarkable is quietly stirring in the productive waters flowing through town. On average, 50,000 adult sockeye salmon—sometimes as high as 215,000—return here annually to spawn in the species’ last best habitat in the Columbia River system.

Just beyond the outskirts of Oliver, I park at the end of a quiet country road, cross a fence and thin linear parkway, then navigate through brush and boulder fields to the west bank of the Okanagan River. Sockeye salmon with candy-apple red bodies and olive heads are visible beneath the swift-flowing waters, paired up and ready to spawn.

Several members of British Columbia’s Okanagan Nation Alliance approach from downstream, wading through waist-deep waters, yelling and banging long branches on the surface. “We got ‘em, we got ‘em,” shouts one man. “We nailed it, yeah!”

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The salmon scatter upstream, only to be corralled inside a seine net carried by other tribal members. When the seine is closed along the shoreline, the catch is transferred into water-filled bags for truck transport to the First Nation’s salmon hatchery and test lab in Penticton. Conveniently wedged between two lakes, Skaha and Okanagan, the city is best known as a summer beach destination about a 40-kilometer drive north of Oliver.

Public utility districts in Washington State fully funded the Okanagan National Alliance’s $14 million hatchery built in 2014 and continue to cover the facility’s annual budget of $1.6 million, part of their legal obligations in the US to mitigate the impact of their dams on migrating juvenile sockeye salmon. The hatchery is separate from the Columbia River Treaty, but highlights the sort of positive international initiatives that are possible to improve the plight of salmon in the watershed.

It’s a unique cross-boundary effort that recognizes where the greatest hope for the salmon lies. “We call it the 4-H Club—habitat, harvest, hydro, and hatchery,” says Howie Wright, fisheries program manager for the Okanagan Nation Alliance. “So far, it’s working. There’s a lot of potential.”

In 2020, the Alliance estimated 50,000 sockeye returned to the Oliver area above Osoyoos Lake and 35,000 above Skaha Lake in Penticton channel and Shingle Creek—all in Canadian waters. Alliance members harvested another 21,300 in various subsistence and commercial fisheries while another 5,400 were caught in an open recreational fishery. These returning fish are a combination of hatchery and wild stocks.

Sockeye have a four-year spawning cycle, and run sizes can vary considerably from year to year. In comparison with 2020’s strong returns, 2019 proved to be a disappointing year. Climate took the blame, however, not dams. A drought in 2015 combined with exceptionally warm waters downstream proved devastating. More than a quarter million sockeye reportedly died, representing half the anticipated run.

For all its successes, the Okanagan River has suffered from human alteration for more than a century on the Canadian side of the border. It has been dredged, channelized, and diked. Three smaller dams on the main stem, for flood control and irrigation, impede the river north of Oliver.

While Indigenous leaders are helpless to stop global warming, they are taking strong action to make up for past degradation. In Penticton, I venture across a public walkway atop a dam and find several members of the Okanagan Nation Alliance finishing some important last-minute work to activate an old fish ladder for salmon.

Built in 1954, the Penticton Dam had a fish ladder that was never used. That’s because about 30 kilometres downstream, the McIntrye Dam had already been built without fish passage so there was no way for salmon to continue their journey. “The elders were afraid the population would go extinct,” explains Ryan Benson, fisheries biologist with the Alliance.

That changed in 2009 when authorities reconfigured the way water is released from McIntyre Dam, reducing the pressure and allowing salmon to migrate upstream again. A decade later, the fish ladder at Penticton Dam finally opened, and adult salmon swam into Okanagan Lake—the region’s longest lake at 120 kilometres and 350 square kilometres. The sockeye only spawn in waters connected to lakes where they spend their first year before migrating to the ocean.

Another important development occurred in 2019 when four million fry—the largest release to date, raised at the Penticton hatchery—were poured into Okanagan Lake to help kickstart the life cycle. Benson has faith in these salmon, which have endured so much over their journey. “They’ve come so far,” he says. “They’re like high-performance athletes.”

While the treaty talks continue to an uncertain conclusion, know that the salmon are beginning to stir in their traditional waters.

With human help, they are reclaiming long-lost habitat, spawning new generations, and showing that the gauntlet of steel and concrete that shadows their passage may finally be seeing some light.

(Larry Pynn photos: hatchery manager Matt McDaniel at Chief Joseph Dam in Washington state; Okanagan Nation Alliance collecting brood stock near Oliver, BC.)