If all goes according to Bill Green’s plan, the first reintroduced Columbia River salmon will cross the U.S.-Canada border in 2016, 78 years after the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam blocked their passage in 1938.
The plan doesn’t stop there. His organization’s goal? “Let’s restore the salmon in 100 years, by 2040,” Green tells me in an interview from his office at the Cranbrook-based Canadian Columbia River Intertribal Fisheries Commission, where he serves as director, overseeing six staff.
Created in the early 1990s in partnership with the Ktunaxa, Shuswap and Okanagan First Nations, the CCRIFC has toiled (amongst other work) on the salmon restoration concept since then. Their efforts are often technical, bureaucratic or otherwise behind the scenes.
Green explains, for example, that the CCRIFC was involved in the environmental assessment process for the Revelstoke Dam Unit 5 process, working to guarantee minimum water flows once the new generator is installed.
“I think it’s fair to say as a result of our efforts we now have the minimum flow there,” Green said. The minimum flows are beneficial to fish in that ecosystem.
They also intervened in the Waneta and Brilliant expansions to advocate for designs that would facilitate future salmon passage.
The CCRIFC’s efforts haven’t been in the public eye often – other than an occasional news story. They don’t even have a website, but they did launch an awareness campaign this year, including work at the Columbia Basin Watershed Network’s Think Like a Watershed Symposium in the East Kootenay this summer. An awareness team visited high schools in Revelstoke and Nakusp where they presented the salmon reintroduction concept to students, telling them they’d be the ones to bring the salmon back.
But mostly, the CCRIFC studies, involves itself in regulatory processes related to the Columbia River system, liaises with partners in the U.S., and develops plans for salmon reintroduction.
Their profile seems destined to be raised in the coming years.
On Dec. 13, the ‘U.S. Entity’ – the American body representing U.S. stakeholders in the Columbia River Treaty review – released its ‘regional recommendations,’ sending them to the federal U.S. State Department for review.
Key to the American provision is an increased emphasis on “ecosystem-based function” in the U.S. Entity position. They are seeking to add a spectrum of ecosystem considerations into the treaty, saying they were omitted in the 1964 agreement, and have been provided for on an ad hoc basis since then.
Prominent in the U.S. Entity position’s ecosystem-based recommendations is a recommended joint U.S.-Canada program to investigate and possibly implement “restored fish passage and [the] reintroduction of anadromous fish on the main stem of the Columbia River to Canadian spawning grounds.”
It required significant organization and lobbying to get salmon passage restoration onto the U.S. Entity’s regional recommendations, explained Paul Lumley, Executive Director of the U.S.-based Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. (The Canadian and American entities have very similar names and do cooperate with each other, but are not to be confused with each other.)
In an interview with the Times Review from his Portland, Oregon head office, the Yakama tribe-affiliated executive director explained getting the salmon restoration on the U.S. Entity agenda was “a real journey.”
The U.S. Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s mission is to ensure a unified voice in the overall management of fishery resource, and to protect U.S. tribes’ treaty rights through exercising the sovereign powers of the tribes.
Since they were formed in the late 1970s, the CRITFC has achieved legal wins, treaty partnerships, scientific studies, advocacy campaigns, conservation initiatives and gained regulatory and enforcement authority over fisheries.
Lumley said restoration of salmon runs into Canada could happen in our lifetimes.
“We are probably talking at least a decade, probably a couple of decades before we can see significant numbers of fish coming back to Canada,” he said. “I am confident it can be done; we just have to have the will to say that we’re going to make it happen. I have a great deal of confidence from where I’m at because I know and I’m on the right side of history [by] making sure these fish come back to Canada.”
The technology and science behind fish passage is improving. Both the U.S. and Canadian tribal commissions are co-hosting an April conference in Portland, Oregon that will focus on restoring historical fish passage on the Columbia River.
Part of that Future of Our Salmon 2014 conference will be technical presentations demonstrating recent advances in fish passage technology. Out of the conference, organizers intend to develop a unified strategy to restore fish passage “that allows Columbia River Basin fish to return to their entire historic range,” according to the event brochure.
Can it be done? And who’s going to pay for it?
The naysayers focus on two points: it’s technically too difficult and just too expensive.
“I think they’re assuming it can’t be done,” Lumley explains. “People out there who are saying the loudest that it can’t be done are those that might be on the hook for paying to make sure it gets done. I believe totally that if we can put a man on the moon, we can get salmon past Grand Coulee, past all these other dams. We can’t conclude it’s impossible until we study it, and it really hasn’t been thoroughly studied. Anybody that concludes before we even study it that it can’t be done [has] got an ulterior motive, in my opinion.”
On the main stem of the Columbia River, salmon are currently blocked by the Chief Joseph Dam, which was built downstream from the Grand Coulee. Both Green and Lumley explain the two U.S. dams are significant hurdles that need funding to be overcome.
After that, the next physical barriers are the Brilliant Dam, the Hugh Keenleyside and the Waneta Dam. The Columbia Power Corporation owns the generating stations and is legally bound to provide fish passage if salmon make it that far, explained Green. The requirement was built into environmental assessment agreements when these facilities added on new power generators in recent decades and years.
“Once we get them upstream of Grand Coulee, then we’ve got access into Arrow Lakes and that means all the way up to Revelstoke with respect to Sockeye and Chinook, into the Slocan system upstream of Brilliant and at least upstream into Waneta and possibly into the Salmo River. It’s a huge step,” Green said.
From the activists’ perspective, the technical and funding challenge lays in the two American dams.
Lumley approaches it from the position of shared responsibility, and that’s expressed in the U.S. Entity position, which calls for “shared costs” for a joint program to investigate and implement restored fish passage.
In other words, Canada should help pay for the studies and fish passage work on the American dams.
“I don’t know that Canada’s actually concluded that [fish passage] should not be a part of the Columbia River Treaty process,” Lumley said. “What I have heard for them in writing is they don’t want to pay for it. Especially at Grand Coulee with something … on the United States side and Canada should not be on the hook for paying the bill – it’s a U.S. responsibility. Now, I have a different opinion on that.”
What about Revelstoke Dam and Mica Dam? “It is going to be technologically sophisticated,” said Canadian Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission director Bill Green.
Technologically, Green points to the Deschutes Passage in Oregon and the Lewis River project in Southwestern Washington State as recent examples of technical fixes that enable fish restoration progress.
Currently, many dams on the U.S. Columbia River have fish passage, and Green said they have developed successful passages.
More study is needed, and environmental approval is required. Green envisions “trap and truck” testing within a few years, bringing the salmon from below Chief Joseph to above Grand Coulee, then releasing radio-tagged fish to see what they do from there.
Green worked with a sockeye restoration project with the Okanagan First Nation in the late 1990s, when numbers were down to a just a couple thousand spawners a year. Now the total return is approaching half a million.
“That is a testament to the power of salmon when you give them and opportunity to do wonderful things,” Green said. “Dams aren’t impassable.”
Canadian local governments support salmon study in CRT
On Dec. 11, the B.C. Columbia River Treaty Local Governments’ Committee released their CRT process recommendations, which were compiled after consultation with Columbia Basin residents.
They supported the study of fish passage restoration: “First Nations and other Basin residents are passionate about returning salmon to the Columbia River in Canada. We strongly support agencies and First Nations/Tribes on both sides of the border exploring the technical and financial feasibility of returning salmon to their historic ranges in the Canadian portion of the Columbia River.”
However, the committee didn’t want cash to flow across the border on the issue: “The committee believes each country should take responsibility for restoration activities in their jurisdiction.”
The local government committee chairperson Deb Kozak said they’d like to see feasibility work continue. “Our request that the government continue these studies.” Kozak said.
The provincial government released their draft recommendations on the Columbia River Treaty review in mid-October. They argue that since the migration ended in 1938, decades before the Columbia River Treaty, salmon passage is not a treaty issue.
“British Columbia’s perspective is that restoration of fish passage and habitat, if feasible, should be the responsibility of each country regarding their respective infrastructure,” states the Government of B.C. in their draft recommendations.
The final B.C. recommendations are expected sometime in the new year.