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Returning the Columbia's Salmon to Canada

by Staff
Cascadia Times, April 2007

Historic photo of Celilo Falls

Canada lost almost all its Columbia River salmon 70 years ago, with the completion of Grand Coulee Dam. Now First Nation bands in British Columbia want to restore the salmon and their ancient fisheries that were taken away with no warning or compensation.

When the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built Grand Coulee Dam, it failed to equip it with fish ladders to allow adult passage. And it did little if anything to let aboriginal groups in Canada know about the drastic changes ahead for their economy, and spiritual and cultural lives.

In 1955, the Army Corps of Engineers built a second barrier to salmon passage, Chief Joseph Dam, 51 miles downstream from Coulee. It also lacks fish passageways.

Today, the only Columbia River salmon reaching Canada are part of a sockeye run up the Okanagan River.

Grand Coulee cut off more than 1,000 miles of spawning habitat stretching deep into the Canadian Rockies. In the U.S., the dam flooded one of the most productive ancient fishing sites in the basin, Kettle Falls, as well as 20,000 acres of land where the tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation had been living for thousands of years.

Long before Grand Coulee Dam's construction, salmon was an important food for First Nation people. More than 1 million salmon swam past the dam every year. One First Nation band, the Ktunaxa, harvested up to 75,000 Chinook, 55,000 sockeye and 112,000 steelhead before the dam was built. The call to return salmon to their lost habitat is getting louder.

In meetings in January and February in Spokane, the subject was the focus of a joint meeting between the Canadian Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and its counterparts in the United States, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

The Canadian Inter-Tribal group in 2003 petitioned the International Joint Commission (IJC) to make amends for the losses of salmon caused by Grand Coulee Dam. The commission, an independent bi-national organization established by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, helps prevent and resolve disputes relating to the use and quality of boundary waters between Canada and the United States.

"The cultural and spiritual relationship between our people and the salmon was a central and defining feature of our people's cultures and societies," said Fred Fortier of the Canadian CRITFC in a letter to the International Joint Commission.

Their petition asks the international commission to make suitable and adequate provision for protection and indemnification of the interests of' "aboriginal peoples in Canada whose fisheries are alleged to have been damaged by the construction and operation" of Grand Coulee Dam and Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir behind the dam.

Support for the First Nation petition has come from organizations all over the region, including the Columbia Basin Trust, a Canadian organization created to help areas impacted by the 1964 Columbia Basin Treaty between the U.S. and Canada.

That treaty led to the construction of four dams -- three in Canada and one in Montana -- while displacing 2,300 residents by the flooding of their communities and farms. In addition, there was a lack of prior consultation with people the basin, according to the Trust. The four dams have caused significant damage to salmon migration.

Two of the Canadian dams, Mica and Arrow, severely impacted the Kinbasket First Nation. "Their whole homeland was buried under 100 feet of water," says Bob Heinith of the U.S. CRITFC.

"In the case of the order approving the Grand Coulee Dam, the fisheries interests of First Nations on the Canadian side were not recognized and given appropriate weight," Fortier said. "The United States did not make provision for the protection and indemnification of those interests, and those interests have sustained damage as a result of the construction and operation of Grand Coulee Dam."

West Coast Environmental Law, a Vancouver, B.C., group, says the dam raises human rights issues. International law bans taking resources or the "means of subsistence" from aboriginal people without compensation.

Andrew Gage, a lawyer for West Coast Environmental Law, said "Grand Coulee destroyed the fishery of the indigenous peoples of the Upper Columbia who had historically depended upon that anadromous fishery for subsistence, livelihood and cultural purposes."

The International Joint Commission posed the Grand Coulee question to its Canadian and American representatives. The U.S. State Department said the commission has no jurisdiction in the matter, and even if it did, after 60 years its request for reparations comes far too late. The Commission urged the Canadian CRITFC to take the matter up with Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

William Green of the Canadian CRITFC says the U.S. should restore the salmon by capturing adults below Chief Joseph Dam and planting their eggs in tributaries of the Columbia River in B.C. He also called for fish ladders on Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee.

The Northwest Power Act requires the region to evaluate the feasibility of restoring salmon to blocked areas. Melinda Eden, a Council member from Portland, says.

One key question, obviously, is whether it is technically feasible to restore the Columbia's salmon to Canada.

"It can be done," Green says "And the salmon are still important to the Ktunaxa. When I go to community meetings there are always a few elders there who recall when they used to go fishing. But there are fewer of them every year."

A 1996 study by the American CRITFC found that restoring salmon above Grand Coulee presents a "major bioengineering challenge." The study noted that salmon failed to completely scale the fish ladders at Pelton Dam on the Deschutes River in Central Oregon. That dam is 150 feet tall, and the fish ladders stretched for three miles.

Grand Coulee is 550 feet in height; Chief Joseph stands 167 feet tall.

Salmon on the Pelton Dam ladders could not survive the high water temperatures on the ladders in the summer sun. "After migrating upstream through a river system with elevated temperatures, adults used the three mile long ladder for holding and spawning, but failed to traverse the ladder and move upstream," the study said.

While adult passage over high head dams of greater than 90 feet has been accomplished through the use of locks, elevators, and trap and haul methods, these methods have maintained only small salmon populations upstream of these dams.

Heinith said an opportunity to review fish passage at Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph arises in 2014, when parties to the 1964 Columbia River Treaty between the U.S. and Canada can seek changes to the document.

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Returning the Columbia's Salmon to Canada
Cascadia Times, April 2007

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