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Cooperative Effort Saves Fish, Farmers

by Lynda V. Mapes, staff reporter
Seattle Times - July 1, 2002

HERMISTON, Ore. -- Watching 30-pound chinook salmon splash their way up the Umatilla River is something of a miracle.

Their nearly 300-mile voyage, crossing five dams, is remarkable enough. But this is a river that died every summer for 70 years as farmers pumped it dry to irrigate thirsty crops.

Finding enough water to save the river, save the salmon and save the local farming community is a remarkable story of cooperation, perseverance, tribal clout and federal cash.

This project, two decades in the making, took a river of money some $100 million was spent by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and Bureau of Reclamation to bring fish back to the river. Spending money is not unusual in salmonland.

But this time, it worked.

In fact, it worked so well, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla is working to do the same thing on the Walla Walla River, which also is pumped dry each summer.

"Exactly what we did in the Umatilla is what we want in the Walla Walla," says Kathryn Brigham, a tribal elder and member of its Board of Trustees.

"It is not only our people that benefit. When you have fish, you have clean water and good habitat. It's something that's really important for the Northwest."

After watching the Umatilla River dry up year after year, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla decided to prime the recovery pump. In a deliberate fish-first, water-later gamble, the tribe dumped 4 million juvenile, lower-Columbia fall chinook into the river in 1982. The tribe did so knowing the fingerlings were the wrong fish stock for the river.

"I said, 'I don't care if they are piranhas, they are never going to make it back anyway,' " said Ed Chaney, a natural-resource consultant based in Eagle, Idaho, who helped on the project.

"If there were some fish we had to protect, there would be some pressure to get some water. So we dumped in a bunch of fish."

Gary James, manager of the tribal fisheries program, said the strategy worked: "It leveraged cooperation. The tribes have a treaty right to fish, and it was, 'If we don't do something, the fish will be flopping on the bedrock.' "

After getting the region's attention, the tribe sought collaboration with irrigators to pressure the federal government to solve the problem of cutting two deals it couldn't deliver:

In 1855, the tribe was promised a treaty right to fish in perpetuity. Later, irrigators were also promised water for agricultural development. Set on a collision course, the two decided to work together to force the federal government to keep its promise to each of them.

"The tribe's tactic was not to go to the third-generation farmer and point to his irrigation ditch and say, 'Shut that thing off,' " James said. "We said, 'We need your help. We are not after you, we are here to stay, and you are too. Why not work together?' Our slogan was 'Negotiate, not litigate.' "

Hadley Akins, 78, of Pendleton, worked as an intermediary between the irrigators and the tribe on behalf of his employer, US Bank, which didn't want to see its farmer customers put out of business. "This was in the early '80s, and the irrigators were like irrigators in most places: They hitched up their shotguns and said, 'Don't you touch my water.'

"But gradually, I am talking about over the course of two or three years, each side began to understand where the other was coming from. The biggest threat was litigation, which would have cost millions and taken years and accomplished nothing. And as we put this thing together, we began to realize, 'Hey, the other side isn't so bad; they are willing to talk to us.' It's probably the proudest accomplishment of my life."

A water exchange was created to keep more water in the Umatilla for fish. Water taken from the irrigators' allotment in the Umatilla was replaced for farmers' use with water from the Columbia River.

The river channel in the Umatilla was deepened, with a half-mile-long slot cut 10 feet wide and 10 feet deep in the bedrock so that every drop of water could go farther for fish. New fish ladders were built at the dams. State-of-the-art fish screens were built over diversion intakes to keep fish out of irrigation ditches.

In 1985, the first salmon came back to the river. Irrigators were and are still in business. And there were enough returning salmon to provide a tribal and nontribal fishery for 10 of the past 13 years, with enough fish left to naturally reproduce. The tribe no longer needs to go outside the basin to get adult fish to seed the run.

Now the tribe is hoping to use revenue from energy development to help do the same thing in the Walla Walla basin, where irrigation withdrawals helped dry up the river every summer.

Newport Generation, a California firm, plans to build a 1,300-megawatt power plant at Wallula, Walla Walla County, within the tribe's ceded lands. As part of the deal, the developer is contributing $1.25 million to the tribe for fish restoration, with 80 percent targeted to the Walla Walla River.

The tribe may also use revenues from its own planned Wanapa Energy Center, a natural-gas-fired power plant it seeks to build on trust land outside Hermiston, for river restoration.

The largest source of funding to restore the Walla Walla so far has been the BPA, which has spent more than $10 million on fish ladders and screens. The Army Corps of Engineers has poured $4 million into the Walla Walla to help remove one dam and build a new fish ladder at an irrigation diversion.

As in the Umatilla, the tribe isn't pushing agricultural interests out of the picture but engaging farmers in the fish-recovery fight, said Brigham, a trustee on the tribe's board. "We've been through what the farmers are going through in the fight for their livelihood. We understand."

And once again, the tribe is putting salmon in a river it expects to be a home for them: The tribe began releasing surplus hatchery adult spring chinook into the Walla Walla in 2000.

The next year the year of the worst drought in 70 years irrigators pushed by the Endangered Species Act kept enough water in the river so that it flowed all summer. Irrigators plan to put more water back this year.

Both sides point to a cooperative effort forged by necessity to benefit spring chinook salmon, ESA-listed summer steelhead and bull trout.

"I believe the tribes were wronged a long time ago," said Alan Davis, an apple grower in the Milton-Freewater area who draws irrigation water from the Walla Walla for his 150-acre family farm. "That's not my fault. But we decided while we didn't create the problem, we needed to be part of the solution. If we can go to the moon, we can share the water.

"The first couple years I was more frightened, not knowing what would happen, but I believe with technology and the way we can irrigate now, with small amounts of water, we can make it work."

Proof positive: When Davis went looking for his son lately to help on the farm, he learned he was out catching salmon on the Umatilla River.

Lynda V. Mapes, staff reporter
Cooperative Effort Saves Fish, Farmers
Seattle Times Company, July 1, 2002

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