Leaders from five upper Columbia River tribes told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council on June 11 that their region has been without salmon for too long, and they're ready to take the next steps toward reintroducing this culturally important fish above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams.

"Most of our tribes are salmon people," Colville Tribal councilman Darnell Sam told the Council. But, he said, with dams blocking salmon from returning to the upper Columbia, many tribal members now live too far from the places where salmon return. As a Wenatchi descendant, Sam said he travels for three hours to fish for salmon in the Icicle River near Wenatchee. Passage would mean they were two miles away. He said the upper Columbia and the people who live there were the most impacted by the dams, but they receive the fewest benefits from mitigation.

John Sirois, committee coordinator for the Upper Columbia United Tribes, or UCUT, said tribes continue to conduct salmon ceremonies at Kettle Falls--which disappeared with the construction of Grand Coulee Dam--even though it has been blocked to salmon for nearly 80 years. Other tribal leaders said they've lost their salmon ceremonies after so many decades without fish passage.

Representatives from several tribes spoke to the full Council after scientists gave a technical presentation to the Council's Fish and Wildlife Committee on the tribes' Fish Passage and Reintroduction Phase 1 Report. The analysis concludes that environmental, operational and structural conditions at both dams "show good potential to produce a fish passage system that provides safe, timely and effective fish passage for summer/fall Chinook and sockeye salmon."

The report addresses an emerging priority from the Council's 2014 Fish and Wildlife Program to investigate options for reintroduction, passage and habitat improvement above blocked areas. One of the program's measures is to reintroduce anadromous fish above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams, an area with over 2 million acres of tribal reservation land, 14 million acres of their traditional territory, 500 miles of waterways, 40 interior lakes, and 30 dams and reservoirs.

Council members expressed interest in pursuing the next phase, which would involve installing interim passage facilities and reintroducing salmon above the two upper Columbia River dams on an experimental basis. They also said the Phase 1 report should first be reviewed by independent scientists, and raised questions about evaluating the costs.

The study was prepared by the Upper Columbia United Tribes, or UCUT--which includes the Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Indians, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Kalispel Tribe of Indians, Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, and Spokane Tribe of Indians--with support from the U.S. Geological Survey and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

According to UCUT's website, the first phase cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, paid mostly by UCUT and tribes, with some contributions from the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration; and staffing contributions from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. A second phase would likely cost millions, the website says. "If Phase 2 experimental releases and interim passage facilities show favorable results, then an important step at the end of Phase 2 will be to determine the preferred options and cost estimates," it says.

The first phase looked at the habitat and its suitability for salmon spawning, rearing and migration; the availability of stocks that could be used for reintroduction; the risks of reintroduction to resident species; potential passage facilities; and current dam operations. It determined the possible outcomes through life-cycle modeling.

According to the report, modeling revealed "significant amounts of habitat within the U.S. portion of the blocked area, totaling 711 miles for spring Chinook and 1,610 miles for summer steelhead for spawning, rearing, and migration." Eighty percent of the spring Chinook habitat and 53 percent of the steelhead habitat has moderate to high productivity potential. Currently accessible tributaries could produce 2,300 natural origin adult steelhead, 600 spring Chinook and 8,500 summer/fall Chinook. The Columbia's mainstem from Chief Joseph Dam to Canada could support between 5,800 and 76,000 spawning summer/fall Chinook adults. The Sanpoil River and its tributaries could produce 34,000 to 216,000 sockeye adults.

The assessment also found many donor sources for reintroducing summer/fall Chinook and sockeye, with Chief Joseph Hatchery right below the dam ranking highest for summer/fall Chinook reintroduction, which includes a high proportion of natural-origin broodstock from the Okanogan River.

The report found that floating surface collectors, already being used in other locations, would be effective in the forebays at both Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams, and with attraction flow would have the potential for high collection efficiency. It says dam operations are compatible with juvenile migration periods. It also acknowledged a need to investigate all options for efficient and cost-effective adult passage, including retrofitted fish ladders, a "negative pressure salmon transport system" such as the Whooshh Innovations' salmon cannon, or a combination of both.

Continued studies in the second phase would show what kinds of fish passage facilities would be needed, and the potential to test floating surface collectors and salmon cannons.

Tribal representatives said they are currently focused on reintroducing summer Chinook and sockeye, which are not listed under the Endangered Species Act, both because those stocks are available from nearby sources downstream, and it will be easier to obtain initial supplies.

Casey Baldwin, senior research scientist for the Colville Tribes, said that tribes are pursuing fish passage through three forums--the Columbia River Treaty, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, and through tribal initiatives.

He went over the conclusions of the first phase, which found there are good options for donor stocks; the risks of disease are manageable; there are large quantities of available and suitable habitat in the U.S. above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams; passage technology exists and is being used at other high-head dams; and returning salmon to blocked areas will deliver cultural and economic benefits for all.

Randy Friedlander, fish and wildlife director for the Colville Tribes, said the tribes recognize the expectations for an independent scientific review, and hope that any questions raised can be answered so their efforts can continue. "Overall, Phase 1 confirmed we should move forward into Phase 2," he said.

He told the Council that before coming to Portland to address them, he stopped at the Columbia River to return salmon remains to the river after a fishing trip with his father. "I looked up[river] towards Grand Coulee Dam, and down[river] towards Chief Joseph Dam and I said a prayer: 'I'm sorry these fish aren't in this water as you intended them to be, but help us figure out how to put them back in'," he said.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.