« Return to this article

Know the West

Tribes ‘buy in’ to restore their river

Warm Springs Indians become dam owners in an effort to bring back salmon


WARM SPRINGS, OREGON - The Deschutes River courses through central Oregon's high desert, winding 237 miles from its headwaters deep in the Deschutes National Forest to the Columbia River.

For centuries, the river's steady flow swept young salmon from their inland birth places into the Columbia, and from there, to the Pacific Ocean. Later, as the grown fish swam back upstream to spawn, some were scooped up in nets by American Indians, who stood on platforms perched on large boulders overlooking the water.

The Deschutes Basin salmon sustained at least three tribes, which are now the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs. Since 1855, those tribes have lived on the Warm Springs Reservation, and the Deschutes River marks the eastern boundary of their territory.

"We have always been salmon people," says Bobby Brunoe, head of the tribal office of natural resources. "Everything in our culture involves salmon. They are at weddings and funerals. They are part of our religious ceremonies. They are our food."

An 1855 treaty ensured that the tribes could continue fishing, but the construction of the Pelton-Round Butte dam complex in 1964 has made a once-bountiful resource scarce. Soon after the dams began operation, officials realized the fish ladders -- designed to allow adult fish to swim past the dams en route to spawning grounds upstream -- didn't work. They abandoned efforts to allow the fish to pass the dams and instead built hatcheries downstream (HCN, 6/10/02: Hatching Reform).

Now, thanks to a first-of-its-kind business partnership and a broad-based restoration effort, that may change. The recent developments mark a major triumph for the tribes, who have found a new way to take control of their lives and resources. Their unequivocal appreciation for salmon also promises to accelerate the restoration of fish and habitat in one of the Northwest's most prominent fisheries.

If you can't beat them ...

To win control of the dams, the Warm Springs tribes didn't use lawsuits: They used cash, and applied a healthy dose of arm-twisting to the dams' majority owner, Portland General Electric. About one-third of the dam complex, including the reservoirs, sits on tribal land. During the first 50 years of the dams' operations, the utility company paid the tribes an annual "rent" of millions of dollars. The money paid for the reservation's schools, roads and hospital. But it didn't make up for the loss of the salmon and the tribes' traditional ceremonies, says Jim Manion, general director of the Warm Springs Power Enterprises.

In 1995, six years before the dams' original license expired, the tribes saw an opportunity: They announced they would compete with Portland General Electric for the new license. Because they owned much of the land under the dams, they could have wrested the license from the utility.

Had the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted the tribes the license, Portland General Electric would have been forced to sell the dams to them, says Julie Keil, the company's director of relicensing. "We stood to lose a major investment, and a low-cost source of power for our customers. It was a real risk."

That risk brought the utility to the table, and eventually yielded a partnership. The tribes bought a 31 percent share of the dams, and the agreement allows for them to ultimately become majority owners. Together, the tribes and the utility are applying for the new federal license, which will be good for 30 to 50 years.

Partial ownership stands to garner much more profit for the tribes than rent did. "Now we take on more of the risk, but we also stand to have more gain," says Manion.

It also gives the tribes more power to lessen the dams' environmental impacts. "When we plan for natural resources, we want to make things better, not just tomorrow, but seven generations out," says Brunoe.

No easy task

The partnership between the tribes and the utility has garnered accolades from Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who trekked to the reservation in July to announce a settlement with the utility and 19 other groups representing governments and nonprofits that will devote millions of dollars to changing the dam operations to restore salmon runs. But the whole plan rides on untested, experimental technology.

In short, the groups want to change how water flows through Lake Billy Chinook, the reservoir created by the first of the dams. The water in the reservoir comes from three rivers: the warm-water Crooked, the average-temperature Deschutes and the clear, cold Metolius. The mixing waters create confusing currents, and migrating fish essentially get lost in the lake.

The tribes and Portland General Electric plan to build a 270-foot-tall underwater tower to regulate the reservoir's currents. A 130-foot wide disc at the top of the tower will draw in most of the surface water, turning the currents and the fish downstream toward collection points, where they will be pumped into a tanker truck and driven downstream of the dams.

The tower will also blend waters from different depths to improve water temperatures, increasing levels of dissolved oxygen, and ameliorating other water-quality factors.

If the project works, officials will reintroduce salmon upstream of the dams as soon as 2007. The earliest that migrating fish would return from the sea would be 2010.

While it's a risky proposition, those who signed onto the settlement are hopeful. "It's a good plan, in theory," says Brett Swift of American Rivers. "Now the hard work begins of making it work."

The author is a Ted Scripps fellow in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs 541-553-2001

Brett Swift American Rivers, 503-827-8648