Yakamas want Compensation for Lost Salmonby Phil Ferolito
Yakima Herald-Republic, July 3, 2006
Nearly a half century has passed since The Dalles Dam flooded Celilo Falls, one of greatest tribal fishing sites on the Columbia River.
After fighting the dam project to the bitter end and winding up in federal claims court, Yakama leaders reluctantly signed an agreement accepting about $15 million in exchange for the loss of the fishing site and trading post that drew American Indians from across the Northwest.
Dam gates closed in 1957, and the falls, located about eight miles east of The Dalles, Ore., and much of a nearby village slipped beneath the water.
Many tribal fishermen were left without their homes and way of life. Stories abound of how disheartened tribal members stood crying at the river's edge as the water began to rise.
Today, a rest area and park sit along the river's edge. Roughly 14 tattered homes and a newly built longhouse -- a tribal church -- just south of Interstate 84 are the only remnants of the village that once sprawled along both sides of the river.
Three other nearby fishing sites, a village not included in any settlement and salmon spawning areas also were lost in the dam's flooding, says Tribal Councilman Leo Aleck.
But the agreement tribal leaders signed with the federal government in 1955 compensated the tribe for only the loss of the falls and not natural habitat or surrounding areas where other fishing sites and villages were, Aleck says.
Now tribal leaders are considering whether to reopen a claims case against the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which designed, built and now operates the dam, for the number of juvenile salmon killed in the dam's turbines during the past 50 years and the loss of spawning areas due to flooding, he says.
"We want an accounting for that," he says. "That was not in the original settlement."
Regarded as sacred by the Yakama tribal members, salmon not only are a staple in their diet but also in their spiritual beliefs.
The Dalles Dam spans the river two miles east of the city The Dalles and is one of four hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River in the Bonneville Power Administration's grid. In addition to The Dalles Dam, the Corps of Engineers also designed, built and operates the Bonneville, John Day and McNary dams, as well as four other dams on the lower Snake River.
Massive non-Indian commercial fishing and loss of habitat in the mid-1800s led to significant declines in salmon runs on the Columbia River, says Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter- Tribal Fish Commission.
Fish conservationists generally agree that fish runs prior to that time had salmon returns anywhere from 10 million to 16 million a year, he says. Today, he says about 2 million salmon return each year.
While dams also have contributed to the declines, recent conservation efforts at the dams are improving salmon runs, says Matt Rabe, Corps of Engineers head spokesman.
Either way, Aleck contends that because the 1855 Treaty reserves the tribe's traditional hunting and fishing rights in that area of the Columbia River, juvenile salmon that were killed in the turbines belong to the tribe.
Aleck says a precedent already has been set in reopening these claims cases. After receiving only $20,000 for a fishing site on Icicle Creek west of Leavenworth, a federal claims court later in 1956 said the payment was too small and awarded the tribe an additional $49,000 for its loss, Aleck says.
But as far as Celilo Falls goes, the Corps of Engineers says the Yakama Nation not only gave up the falls in the settlement but also relinquished fishing rights in that area, says John Breiling, senior counsel with the Corps of Engineer.
"The settlement was to pay the tribe for the full destruction or inundation of these usual and accustomed fishing stations," he says.
The settlement includes all areas covered by The Dalles Dam pool, which runs to the John Day Dam about 20 miles upriver, he says.
The Corps of Engineers, however, says the agency is willing to provide the tribe with information on juvenile salmon survival rates at The Dalles Dam, but isn't sure it can gather data spanning 50 years, says Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Diana Fredlund.
"We value our relationship with the tribe," she says. "We are going to do everything we can to work with the tribe. It's an important relationship."
Many dams on the Columbia River have passageways similar to fish ladders for juvenile fish to navigate past the dams down river.
Instead of possessing fish passages, The Dalles Dam utilizes its spillway and ice-and-trash bypass system to help juvenile salmon down river, Rabe says.
The ice-and-trash system was modified in 1977 to allow fish passage, and in 1995, the spillway was changed to allow fish to pass as well, he says.
Data from last year show about 90 percent of migrating juvenile fish made it past the dam without any problem, he says.
But Aleck says not only does he want to know exactly how many juvenile salmon were killed in the turbines over the past 50 years, he also wants to know the amount of power and revenue the dam has generated since being built.
Other dams on the Columbia River -- with the exception of federally operated dams such as The Dalles -- have to be licensed every 50 years, and the tribe is using that timeline as a basis for its research into The Dalles Dam, Aleck says.
Aleck plans to hold a 1 p.m. meeting Friday at the Eagle Seelatsee Auditorium in the Yakama tribal complex in Toppenish to inform tribal members of the issue.
If tribal members favor reopening a claim, then it will go before the tribe's General Council, where all major decisions are made and elections are held for the 14-body Tribal Council.
"We're going to do it the old way -- Yakama people," Aleck says. "What we want to do is make (The Dalles Dam) accountable to the Yakama Nation."
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