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A Path of Life Full of Obstacles

by Rick Attig
The Oregonian, December 24, 2005

It can be painful to watch the people charged with salmon recovery try to navigate the swirling Columbia River.

The past lies just beneath the surface, a jagged rock hardened by centuries of history and heartbreak.

Midway through a recent hearing in U.S. District Court in Portland on proposals to increase the Columbia's flow and spill more water over dams, Howard Funke, a lawyer representing the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene tribes, stood to address Judge James Redden.

These tribes, Funke said, understand why downriver tribes such as the Warm Springs and Umatilla are urging the judge to order more water released from upriver reservoirs, including Lake Roosevelt, the massive reservoir created by Grand Coulee Dam.

After all, the Spokane know firsthand the pain of losing salmon when you have built a culture around the fish over thousands of years. The Grand Coulee walled salmon away from the Spokane and flooded a river known to the tribe as the "path of life."

But the Spokane tribe is now strongly opposed to the release of water from Lake Roosevelt to help restore Columbia River salmon runs downstream, Funke said. Bringing down the level of the reservoir would expose the graves of hundreds, perhaps thousands of Spokane tribal members.

For centuries, Funke said, the Spokane buried their dead along the river, always with their heads toward the stream, facing the "path of life." The graves were inundated when Grand Coulee was built. Lowering the reservoir level now will expose the graves to looters, Funke said, and could even send remains through the dam's churning turbines.

The courtroom was silent for a moment. Other lawyers soon weighed in with more arguments for and against the higher flows for salmon. At the hearing's end, Judge Redden said that he's not likely to order the release of water from Lake Roosevelt.

Yet in that moment, you could feel the shudder of modern-day salmon recovery efforts strike yet another submerged bit of history. Once again, you could see that on the Columbia River, there is no such thing as water over the dam.

Rick Attig
A Path of Life Full of Obstacles
The Oregonian, December 24, 2005

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