Irrigation Dams Blamed for Disappearance of Fish : Salmon Runs Restored for Umatilla Indians in Oregon
Few people remember the days before irrigation dams killed the salmon runs on the Umatilla River.
But the Umatilla Indians never forgot, and, more than 70 years after the river’s waters became the property of white farmers, the Indians are seeing salmon returning as a result of a huge federal commitment to restore a part of the circle of life.
“It’s like a part of us returns, part of my body,” said Louie Dick Jr., vice chairman of the board of trustees for the Umatilla tribe.
About 600 members of the tribe still live on a reservation just east of Pendleton, about 40 miles up the Umatilla River from where it empties into the Columbia River at this town.
The treaty that put them on the reservation in 1855 was supposed to guarantee the right to gather traditional foods in their usual places, including the salmon swimming up the Umatilla River.
But, after 1914, when a series of five irrigation dams was built, so much water was diverted for farms that not enough was left in the riverbed for the coho and chinook salmon to swim through the broad shallow stretches and over 24-foot-tall Three-Mile Dam to spawn in the headwaters and tributaries.
Only the steelhead, a type of rainbow trout related to salmon, survived the dams, because the steelheads could wait for the winter rains to raise the river and were better at climbing the crude fish ladders.
For the Umatilla Tribe, the loss of the salmon left a gap in the circle of eight inseparable elements that make up life: speech, food, religion, shelter, clothing, water, the land and the person.
In 1980, Congress created the Northwest Power Planning Council with a mandate to restore fish runs wiped out by dams in the Columbia River system. That is when the Umatilla treaty began to have power.
Working with the council, the Bonneville Power Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Energy that markets power from 28 dams, has spent $8 million on the Umatilla and is committed to a total of $25 million, said Jay Marcotte, manager of the Umatilla Basin project for the Bonneville Power Administration.
Congress ordered the agency, because it sells electricity from dams that devastated fish runs, to set aside a part of its profits to “protect, mitigate and enhance” fish and wildlife.
The U.S. Forest Service and the Umatilla Indians use that money on their respective lands, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife uses it on private land, to stop erosion that smothers spawning beds, to deepen shallow channels and to build fish ladders, traps and outtake screens on the dams. A new hatchery is planned near the mouth of the river.
Between 1981 and 1987, the agency’s expenditures to improve Columbia basin fish runs included $120 million in direct payments and, the agency calculated, four times that much in indirect payments, such as lost revenue from storing water to help fish get over the dams rather than using it to turn turbines.
Gary James, who manages the fisheries program for the Umatilla Indians, is seeing the effects.
“This was the very first year we’ve gotten adult coho back to the river,” he said.