Allen Pinkham Sr. remembers 30-pound salmon jumping in the tumult of Celilo Falls, 50 years ago. As a boy, Pinkham traveled from the Nez Perce Reservation in northern Idaho to Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, for the spring and summer salmon runs. Many Nez Perce gathered on the banks to catch the big fish and conduct religious ceremonies. "They would drum and sing to the Creator," Pinkham says, "giving thanks for the salmon."

The Nez Perce still rely on salmon. Pinkham and his kids fish on Idaho rivers every summer, sometimes netting enough to bring home a hundred pounds or more of salmon meat. They eat it year-round, smoke or freeze some, and "give the extra to the tribal elders," Pinkham says.

Yet dams, thousands of irrigation diversions, and streams silted up from heavy logging have caused many salmon runs to fade. The Dalles Dam, built in 1957, drowned Celilo Falls under a reservoir, and now stalls migrating salmon. Faced with such changes, the Nez Perce have become leaders in the fight to save the fish.

Now the tribe may be close to a major victory — a $193 million deal with the federal government and Idaho’s government. It would net the tribe cash, land and water, and some say it would help save salmon. Yet Pinkham, who was tribal chairman during the 1980s, says the agreement "is not the correct thing to do."

Tribe wields major influence

The Nez Perce tribe has only about 3,600 members, but they influence management of wildlife, including wolves, beyond their 100,000 acres of tribal land (HCN, 1/24/05: Feds to hand wolves to states). Their leverage on salmon issues comes from an 1855 treaty: In exchange for surrendering their claim to millions of acres of land in the Northwest, it guaranteed them fishing rights on those lands. The Nez Perce believe this means they have a right to healthy salmon runs — and water flows to support those runs — throughout the Snake River system, including the Salmon and Clearwater rivers.

Trying to make that idea a reality, the tribe filed thousands of water claims in the Snake River Basin Adjudication, an ongoing formalization of water rights held by farmers, hydropower companies and cities. State District Court Judge Barry Wood rejected the tribe’s claims in 1999, but many experts believed the tribe would prevail in Idaho’s Supreme Court or in federal court. So irrigators and other water users negotiated with the tribe’s lawyers and scientists to hammer out the Snake River Water Rights Agreement. Congress approved the deal last November, but it won’t take effect unless the Idaho Legislature and the tribe approve it by March 31.

Under the agreement, the tribe would get $93 million in federal money for economic development and habitat improvement over the next 30 years. It would also get about 12,000 acres of federal land, 50,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Clearwater River to use for farming or development, and management authority at two federal fish hatcheries.

Another $11 million in federal money would go to the federal Bureau of Reclamation, to buy 60,000 acre-feet of water from farmers. That water would help the Bureau meet an important goal: releasing at least 427,000 acre-feet per year from its Snake River reservoirs to aid salmon migration. NOAA Fisheries set the goal in 1992, but because of drought, the Bureau hasn’t met it since 2000.

The agreement would also establish a $38 million trust fund to pay ranchers and other landowners who help salmon by doing things like restoring water to dry streams. And the tribe and the state Water Resources Board would set minimum flows on about 200 streams that are important salmon habitat.

Dan McCool, a University of Utah political science professor who’s studied more than a dozen Indian water settlements, says this one is particularly notable for having innovative environmental measures, a huge pot of money, and an unprecedented amount of federal land "returned" to the tribe.

Settlement may not be enough for salmon

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, R, and many industries support the deal. They want the tribe’s claims settled so they can focus on Idaho’s worsening water shortages, which are another huge issue in the Legislature. The Legislature will probably approve the proposal.

But the Nez Perce are worried about loopholes. While the agreement promises in-stream flows for fish, the flows aren’t legally guaranteed and would be considered subordinate to future water claims by farmers and developers.

The Nez Perce, and nontribal environmentalists and biologists, say the deal won’t solve Idaho’s salmon crisis, either. Even releasing the full ration of water dedicated for salmon — 427,000 acre-feet plus the additional 60,000 acre-feet — would boost the Snake River’s flow by only a small fraction. Critics still think the best way to help salmon is to remove the four dams on the Lower Snake River that impede migration (HCN, 10/11/04: Dams will stand, salmon be damned).

Pinkham and other critics want the tribe’s full membership to vote on the proposal. But the deal’s other favorable terms mean that the nine elected members of the Tribal Executive Committee will probably approve it without putting it to a general vote. "This settlement isn’t a celebration," says Greg Haller, a hydrologist and the tribe’s Snake River Basin Adjudication coordinator. "Settlements rarely are."

The author is HCN’s editor in the field. Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman contributed to this story.