Celilo Falls

Dipnet fishing at Celilo Falls around 1957.

Two Pacific Northwest tribes on Oct. 14 called for removal of three hydroelectric dams on the lower Columbia River to boost salmon populations and help feed struggling orcas.

Representatives of Lummi and Yakama nations made the argument for removing The Dalles, John Day and Bonneville dams on Indigenous Peoples Day, standing on the bank of Lake Celilo, near where Celilo Falls once roared and teemed with salmon.

Jay Julius, chairman of the Lummi Nation, and JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, held a press conference near where the cultural heart of Native American life in the Northwest once thrived. Celilo Falls was the first of a series of waterfalls and rapids that stretched about 12 miles along the lower Columbia River. It was one of the world's most productive salmon fisheries for some 11,000 years, until it was submerged in 1957 after the construction of The Dalles Dam.

"The tribe never consented to the construction of the lower Columbia River dams," Goudy said. "On behalf of the Yakama Nation and those things that cannot speak for themselves, I call on the United States to reject the doctrine of Christian discovery and immediately remove the Bonneville Dam, Dalles Dam and John Day Dam."

The three dams are among the 31 hydro facilities that make up the Federal Columbia River Power System. The trio have total generating capacity of 5,250 megawatts, and their locks help facilitate the passage of 50 million tons of foreign trade, mostly agricultural goods from farms in the Intermountain West, at a value of over $24 billion annually, according to the Columbia River Steamship Operators Association and the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.

"We have great respect for the Yakama and Lummi nations and for Indigenous Peoples Day, but we believe that the lower Columbia River dams are a critical carbon free resource in our fight against the climate crisis that threatens the health and well-being of the entire Northwest," Northwest RiverPartners said in a statement emailed to NW Fishletter.

The Bonneville Power Administration invests hundreds of millions of dollars annually in salmon recovery programs in the Columbia Basin and operates one of the largest species recovery programs in the nation. The federal agency said in a statement emailed to NW Fishletter that it remains "focused on continuing our work with our many partners throughout the region to address the environmental, economic and cultural issues within the Columbia River Basin."

The basin once produced an estimated 10 million to 16 million salmon per year, but the runs are now down to about 1 million salmon per year, the tribes said in a news release.

The call to remove the dams was applauded by at least one environmental group in the region. Columbia Riverkeeper said it "stands in solidarity with Yakama and Lummi nations" and "its vision for a free-flowing lower Columbia River."

Dam removal is a complex issue that will require intense analysis and must ensure solutions for clean and reliable electricity and transportation, Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, said in a statement.

"In the decades ahead, I'm confident we can replace the dams with truly clean energy, transport cargo to ocean ports, and save salmon runs from extinction," VandenHeuvel said. "What about flood control? The three lower Columbia dams are 'run-of-the-river' dams and do not provide significant flood control, unlike large storage dams in British Columbia."

Repowering the Pacific Northwest with wind, solar and battery storage will create local jobs for decades, VandenHeuvel said.

"This transition will take time, and it's smart to start planning today," he added. "It may have been heresy to say this 40 years ago, but hydropower is not clean energy. It is destroying salmon runs, orcas, and cultures that depend on salmon. And it's not cheap anymore; wind and solar are becoming more affordable than electricity from dams. In this age of extinction and climate change, we must take bold action."

In addition to the three dams on the Columbia River, environmental and clean-energy advocates have also at various times lobbied for removal of four lower Snake River dams, closing the Columbia Generating Station, and ceasing use of natural gas-fired power generation in the region. Those calls would eliminate about 16,000 megawatts from the region's 32,000-megawatt generating capacity, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

Removing the three lower Columbia River dams, along with the four lower Snake River dams, would require an act of Congress.