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News / Northwest

Biden vows to help return salmon to Upper Columbia Basin

Deal with tribes commits $200M for species’ recovery

By Lynda V. Mapes, The Seattle Times (TNS)
Published: September 25, 2023, 7:48pm

SEATTLE—The Biden administration Thursday committed more than $200 million toward salmon recovery in the Upper Columbia Basin in return for a 20-year stay of litigation.

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and Spokane Tribe of Indians signed the agreement with federal officials in a ceremony Thursday. The agreement secures $200 million from the Bonneville Power Administration to be paid over 20 years to advance a tribally led implementation plan to restore salmon and steelhead in the Upper Columbia Basin.

The construction of large hydroelectric and flood control dams — including the Grand Coulee Dam and Chief Joseph Dam, built 50 miles downstream — blocked anadromous fish from migrating into the Upper Columbia River Basin and onto or through the ceded and reserved lands of the Colville, Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribes.

Tribes lost access to salmon and steelhead in the blocked areas, an irreparable harm devastating to tribal cultures, and mental, spiritual and physical health, tribal leaders said in a prepared statement, wrongs that can only be healed by restoring salmon to their home waters.

Salmon runs in the Upper Columbia were abundant for thousands of years and a mainstay of tribal cultures. The fishery at Kettle Falls on the Upper Columbia, which was flooded by the Grand Coulee Dam, was second only to the abundance at Celilo Falls on the mainstem Columbia, which was drowned by the Dalles Dam.

In a ceremony in Washington, D.C., federal officials committed to working with the tribes toward fishery restoration under a process still in the planning phases.

For more than a decade, the Upper Columbia United Tribes, which includes tribes in Washington and Idaho, have been working toward a phased plan to study the feasibility and implementation of reintroducing salmon and steelhead back to the waters now blocked by dams.

The four-part effort is currently in the second stage, which includes research over the next 20 years to establish sources of donor and brood salmon stocks for reintroduction, test biological assumptions, develop interim hatchery and passage facilities, and evaluate how the program is working.

For tribes, the commitments Thursday are a long time coming.

“In 1940, Tribes from around the Northwest gathered at Kettle Falls for a Ceremony of Tears to mourn the loss of salmon at their ancestral fishing grounds,” said Jarred-Michael Erickson, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, in a prepared statement from the White House Council on Environmental Quality.