SPOKANE — Salmon could one day return to areas above the massive Grand Coulee Dam if the issue gains favor as part of a broad reassessment of the Columbia River Treaty.
The issue of salmon passage has resurfaced as officials explore renewed treaty talks, The Spokesman-Review reported Thursday. Tribes in the Northwest and First Nations in Canada have long sought the restoration of salmon habitat above the 550-foot-high Grand Coulee.
“That’s been a goal ever since the dam was built,” said Michael Finley, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. “My grandparents and my parents have talked about it as long as I can remember.”
The Grand Coulee Dam was built in the 1930s without fish ladders, halting salmon runs to the Upper Columbia River. Officials initially rejected options that would have moved fish beyond the Grand Coulee.
The 1964 Columbia River Treaty focuses on hydropower and flood control. Now officials in the United States are interested in expanding the treaty’s purpose to also address issues such as salmon and climate change.
Liz Hamilton, executive director for the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association in Portland, said renewed salmon runs would benefit the region. Hamilton said the summer Chinooks that used to migrate through Washington to British Columbia weighed as much as 80 pounds.
Hamilton said the Northwest can be proud of its hydropower system while working toward fixing mistakes made during the development of the system.
Originating high in the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia, the Columbia River flows 1,240 miles through Canada and the United States to the Pacific Ocean. Its drainage area crosses both countries and touches seven U.S. states, and its average annual runoff dwarfs the Colorado and Missouri rivers.
The runoff was deadly on Memorial Day 1948: Spring runoff from a melting heavy snowpack pushed the river over its banks far downstream in Oregon, killing more than 30 people and destroying the community of Vanport. Economic losses exceeded $100 million.
The disaster started negotiations between the U.S. and Canada for better management of the river’s dams and reservoirs, both for flood control and hydropower generation. The ensuing treaty, signed in 1964, has no expiration date, but either country may cancel it or suggest changes beginning in 2024 with 10 years’ notice.