The Resurrection of a River:
Re-watering the Umatilla Basin
by Christopher W. Shelley. Paper presented at the American Society for Environmental History Conference, March 2000
In the late 1970s, an Indian tribe in the arid Columbia Plateau came to a decision of place. It decided that the river that flowed through its reservation, a river that its people had drawn sustenance from for time immemorial would live again. For more than fifty years, the Umatilla River had been bereft of its salmon, wiped out by irrigation dams that left its lower reaches desiccated impassable and uninhabitable by the native chinook and coho. The decision by the Confederated tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation to put salmon back in the river came at a time of unprecedented public support for salmon restoration all over the Columbia River Basin. After designing the Umatilla Fish Restoration Program, the Umatilla Indians began the awesome task of putting water back into the river so their program would be successful
The Umatilla Indians view that their river should again be a salmon-bearing stream in accordance with their treaty rights faced potentially powerful opposition. The farmers of the Umatilla River Basin had their own view of the river: a tool. Without that water the brutally dry summers near Pendleton Oregon would wilt anything except sagebrush and bunchgrass.
The Tribes had choices. To keep enough water in the Umatilla for salmon migration, they could litigate, suing irrigators under their reserved treaty rights to fish. The fact that this would necessarily take years in court (coupled with the unthinkable possibility that they may lose, and thus have those treaty rights curtailed) was unappealing. Or they could negotiate, using the Treaty of 1855 as a lever to build a new kind of natural resource agreement. The story of the resurrection of the Umatilla and its salmon hinges on the possibility of new, unlikely alliances between traditional enemies, and conflict with potential allies.
The Tribes' plan for restoring salmon coincides with the 1980 passage of the Northwest Power Act. This law radically changed the face of the Northwest Salmon Crisis. The Act created the Northwest Power Planning Council, which was charged with creating a program that would restore salmon runs crippled by the hydropower system. The Council was to do this using funds provided by the Bonneville Power Administration. The Tribes, with the help of the Oregon Department of Fish and wildlife, created a plan that was a remarkable blend of technology and nature. Tribal biologists would use small hatcheries to artificially spawn some salmon for broodstock, but they would allow many of the strongest salmon to remain in the river, to swim upstream into the tributaries and spawn naturally. Fish managers would use hatcheries to jump start salmon runs, but they would rely on a "gravel to gravel" strategy to propagate most of the salmon in the basin.
While the Tribes negotiated funding for their revolutionary salmon restoration program, their natural resource consultant, biologist Ed Chaney, had entered into a different set of negotiations with the irrigation districts in the Umatilla regarding a partnership.
For 80 years, irrigators had pretty much had their way with the rivers of the Plateau and Eastern Oregon. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation helped farmers tap into the Imnaha, the Grande Ronde, the Wallowa, the Tucannon, the Walla Walla, and the Umatilla Rivers. They made the desert bloom, but at the expense of anadromous fish. By the 1920s the Umatilla ceased to run year-round to the Columbia, an annual man-made drought that coincided with the run of summer and fall chinook to the river. Migrating adults had to face what amounted to a seasonal annihilation of their habitat just at the time they needed it most. In July, August, and September, the lower Umatilla River became either a slow-moving mire of farm wastes, or totally nonexistent. By 1926, state fish and wildlife experts reported that there were no chinook and no coho left in the Umatilla.
It was this history that Ed Chancy faced on October 26, 1982, as he went into the fire station in Stanfield, a farming community on the lower Umatilla. Chaney was there to meet with the heads of the major irrigation districts is the Umatilla Basin to spell out the Tribes' need for water. These initial negotiations focused on a single point: the Tribes would bring back their salmon at almost any cost. The Tribes, he told the irrigators, wanted to accomplish salmon restoration with as little disturbance to the economic order as possible. But, if necessary, they would cite their "treaty right to fish," and exert all the legal and political muscle they had. Their right to salmon in the Umatilla Basin was not up for discussion.
This was the opening of a dialogue that resulted two years later in the 1984 formation of the Umatilla Basin Project Steering Committee. What the Tribes wanted from the irrigators was help soliciting from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation a project, funded by Congress, that would solve the area's water deficit. Initially, the irrigators were reluctant to join with the Indians. This was understandable: the Indians' goal was a vision of the river fundamentally at odds with their own But they understood too well that the Tribes, had the higher legal ground, and if it came to litigation, the irrigators stood to lose all.
In 1983, the Bureau of Reclamation conducted an instream flow study, outlining possibilities for a water project. The Bureau's most likely option was to construct a series of canals and huge pumps to draw water from behind McNary Dam on the Columbia into the interior of the Umatilla Basin for farmers. Irrigators would then leave the cleaner, colder Umatilla for salmon habitat. It was important to actually exchange water, not just refill the Umatilla with Columbia water, since salmon would have a difficult time navigating their return migration if they could not distinguish between the river they imprinted on as juveniles from the Columbia.
The four irrigation districts--the Hermiston, Stanfield, Westland, and West Extension Irrigation Districts--were not altogether happy about this plan. In April, as part of their input into what the Bureau called the Umatilla Basin Project, the districts had informed the Bureau of their desire that the project bring new sources of irrigation water. When the Bureau of Reclamation responded that its project was not intended to provide more water to irrigators, Bill Porfily, the manager of the Wesland Irrigation District, made it clear that "the irrigation districts want to get something more from the project than a guarantee of the status quo. If they get no further benefit from the project then the districts might as well allow the tribal litigation to run its course." Irrigators in the Columbia Basin had come to see it as a matter of course that they would get more water from Bureau of Reclamation projects, not less, or even the same. Porfily's threat to refuse support for the Project turned out to be a bluff. The realty was that the Umatilla Basin Project proposed to operate with virtually the same appropriation framework as before, within the status quo of river withdrawals, requiring irrigators to change nothing. The irrigators prudently moved to join the Umatilla Basin Project Steering Committee. This group worked together to show unified support in the Umatilla Basin and lobby for the Project with Congress.
In 1986, the Steering Committee and the Northwest Power Planning Council began to lobby Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon. Senator Hatfield had always been sensitive to the nation's trust and responsibility to Native Americans for many years, and as a member of the Senate appropriations committee, he saw this as an opportunity to make good on a more than century-old promise: that there would be fish in the rivers for time immemorial. He became the principle backer of the UBP in the legislature. It seemed that this unlikely coalition of farmers and Indians were on the verge of completing their unprecedented agreement: to revive a river without traditional animosities getting in the way. The Bureau was proposing an involved, complicated, multi-phased plan. The crucial part of the First Phase was to replace water drawn by the West End Irrigation District from the last three miles of the Umatilla, where it entered the Columbia It was WEID's withdrawals from behind Threemile Dam that had parched the last three miles of the Umatilla, leaving it dry in the autumn when fall chinook were coming home. If WEID could leave Umatilla water alone, then salmon would be able to get to the Tribes' newly built fish ladders and traps at Threemile Dam. The plan also stipulated that BPA would pay the electrical costs of pumping water out of the McNary pool.
This cost for the huge pumps was significant. The Bureau's Project plan identified BPA as the most logical source of power, since it controlled the hydroelectric power of the Columbia system. For their part, the Tribes saw the Umatilla Basin Project as interdependent with the Umatilla Fish Restoration Program (which Bonneville was already funding), and consistent with the Northwest Power Act. Since the Act stipulated that 'Bonneville shall fund" fish restoration efforts endorsed by the Power Planning Council, Bonneville was the most appropriate agency for the pumping power. If Bonneville supplied the electricity for the Columbia River pumps, then the pumping costs would not be figured into the overall costs of the project, thus leaving more money for sorely needed stream improvements on the river.
In addition, the Tribes could not wait until Congress voted on a water project for the Umatilla. The chinook that they had released into the Umatilla back in 1982 would be returning soon, and those fish needed water in the interim between the time that Congress debated and decided funding for the Umatilla Basin Project. For this interim water, funds would also have to come from Bonneville. Therefore, the Tribes introduced an amendment to the Power Planning Council's Fish and Wildlife Program for power to pump interim water as they waited for a federal water project.
Locally, the Umatilla Basin Project was being trumpeted as "right for the environment" and, by Oregon Governor Neil Goldschmidt, as "morally essential." But in 1987, after Senator Hatfield introduced Senate Bill 1613, initiating the Umatilla Basin Project, Bonneville's chief customer, the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee (PNUCC), attacked the project to keep Bonneville from becoming involved. PNUCC is a powerful consortium of Bonneville's biggest customers: the direct service industries, which includes aluminum factories, private utilities, and public utilities. It argued strenuously against Bonneville's supplying money for both the interim water, and the electric power for the pumps. These industries feared they would ultimately pay for the pumping through increases in their power bills. PNUCC argued that ratepayers should not be responsible for fish mitigation in areas unaffected by hydroelectric dams. PNUCC found BPA's funding role in projects such as screening irrigation ditches from young salmon inappropriate since it was addressing issues that had nothing to do with hydropower generation. In March, PNUCC sent a flyer to its constituents, reporting that Congress was going to obligate Bonneville "to provide free pumping for fish." Impacts to Umatilla salmon were not caused by the federal hydropower system, and it urged its members to "contact Senator Hatfield... and express your opposition to the BPA provisions of this legislation."
What PNUCC feared was a precedent-setting appropriation of Bonneville funds to pay for damage done to salmon streams by irrigation. There were many rivers on the Plateau degraded by irrigated farming. These rivers flowed through treaty-ceded lands where the Tribes have fishing rights. If BPA was forced to pay to put water back into one river like the Umatilla, there seemed no limit as to how many river basins it might be required by the Council to re-water. PNUCC considered funding the big irrigation pumps a "Pandora's box"' of mitigation projects that would come out of Bonneville's pocket, even though Bonneville had nothing to do with the fish disappearing form a particular river.
PNUCC's insistence that Bonneville be excluded from the project proved in vain. In 1988 Congress passed the Umatilla Basin Act, which endorsed and appropriated funds for the Bureau's Umatilla Basin Project as planned. The Act explicitly confirmed that Bonneville would "provide for project power needed to effect the water exchange with irrigation districts for purposes of mitigating anadromous fishery resources." The act stated that this was "consistent with provisions of the Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program."
The unlikely alliance between Indians and irrigators marked an important shift in the struggle to re-allocate western resources according to values other than extraction. In a mere eight years, the Umatilla Tribes had succeeded in making environmental and cultural concerns integral parts of a discussion that had heretofore been about business. But although environmental restoration was the ultimate goal of this project, not all environmentalists appreciated another water project in the arid plateau. Just as conflicts over funding with BPA and PNUCC were beginning to subside, there came an attack on the project from another quarter. Now the Tribes watched as their partners the irrigators came under tire from an environmental group.
WaterWatch of Oregon had been worried with flows and irrigation practices in the Umatilla Basin since the late 1980s. WaterWatch, its complaints to the State ignored, turned to the tool that the Tribes had rejected years earlier: litigation. By tangling in the courts a project still in the panning stages, WaterWatch might convince Congress that the project was too contentious to fund. This threatened the entire process so carefully nurtured by the Tribes since 1980.
WaterWatch had spent years urging the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) to enforce Oregon water law on the irrigation districts of the Umatilla River Basin. WaterWatch accused the OWRD of complicity with the 'waterspreading" that the irrigation districts had been engaged in for years. Waterspreading is the sale of an irrigation district's unused irrigation water to other farmers or other irrigation districts, in violation of Oregon water law. That law mandated that irrigators initiate water conservation techniques and then leave that "saved" water in the river. In practice, many irrigators from the big four irrigation districts would sell that "excess" water, "spreading" the water to other farmers outside their boundaries.
In September 1991, WaterWatch wrote to Senator Hatfield, informing the Umatilla Basin Project's chief sponsor in the senate that "illegal water marketing activities" endangered the capability of the Umatilla Basin Project to achieve its goals. WaterWatch also filed a Petition, to amend the Umatilla Basin Project. In order to "encourage restoration" of the Umaulla River, WaterWatch demanded that OWRD "terminate illegal, unpermitted, and forfeited diversions and uses." WaterWatch even proved its charges by producing several OWRD and Bureau of Reclamation memoranda showing that OWRD had long known about waterspreading. These memos show that while it instructed the Westland Irrigation District to cease waterspreading in 1986, it did nothing to enforce compliance.
WaterWatch's accusations precipitated a new crisis when, in 1991, the Portland Oregonian printed a feature article entitled "The Umatilla River Blues." This story, which ran over 2,500 words, largely backed up WaterWatch's allegations. The article chronicled the history of over-appropriation from the turn of the century to the present time. Its central thesis was that the U.S. government had essentially "promised the river twice: to the irrigators between 1904 and 1924, and to American Indians" in the Treaty of 1855. In the article, Tom Simmons, Chairman of WaterWatch of Oregon, looks at the shriveled river and scoffs: "If there's any salmon in that river, they'd need dirt bikes to get upstream."
Reaction to the article was vociferous and immediate. On October 29, 199l, John Keys of the Bureau of Reclamation wrote in a "Letter to the Editor" of the Portland Oregonian that the "Umatilla River Blues" "disappointed" him. "It was frustrating," he wrote, "for those of us... who accepted the challenge to solve a problem to have the resulting product labeled a 'fraud' by Water Watch of Oregon."
Stung by the story, OWRD jumped to enforce compliance of these moribund laws. Not surprisingly, the irrigation districts were outraged. At OWRD's December 3 public hearing, Bill Porfily, manager of the Westland Irrigation District, made the dire prediction OWRD's actions would "bankrupt people." Irrigators considered it ridiculous that an environmental group could hold a federal project "hostage." To them, this was a typical case of west-of-the-Cascade, urban environmentalists, out of touch with the farming culture of the interior, sticking its nose into an east-of-the-Cascades situation, where all the parties involved agreed.
Threats and negotiations continued throughout the fall. For the Tribes, the potential fallout from WaterWatch's petition and threat to sue was extremely dangerous. The Tribes certainly did not condone the irrigation districts' illegal water practices, but neither did they want to anger or alienate their partners and jeopardize their larger goals. At the same time, the Tribes needed to show concern for WaterWatch's petition and its correct allegations. Their strategy, recommended by Ed Chaney in a memo to the CTUIR board would be to "keep the pressure on BR and [irrigation] districts to clean up their acts without. . . playing into the hands of well-intentioned critics of the project who... would sacrifice the opportunity to enhance instream flows and thereby, would pit the tribe against the nontribal community." There was nothing for the Tribes to gain by "railing" at the irrigators. Best to act "concerned," and let the state water resources department enforce compliance. Chaney also expressed defiance. The Tribes could not wait for water, yet the reforms in irrigating practices demanded by WaterWatch, while important in themselves, could take long for OWRD implement. As Chaney put it, "Contrary to what the good folks at Oregon Water Watch [sic] think, the tribe should not have to wait more decades for fulfillment of its treaty-reserved rights to fish until the state, BR and irrigators can get around to cleaning up their water-use act."
On December 5, representatives from the irrigators, the Bureau of Reclamation, OWRD, ODFW, WaterWatch, and the Tribes met to hammer out some sort of compromise to the WaterWatch petition. Throughout the winter, these local, state, federal, tribal, and private groups negotiated desperately to keep the Project from derailing. Negotiations continued until February 1992, when the parties signed an agreement allowing the Umatilla Basin Project to go forward. WaterWatch, mollified by actions on the part of the Bureau and OWRD, promised to make sure that it would not turn its petition into a suit that might cause Congress to withhold the promised funds. The Umatilla Basin Act passed Congress in 1992, and the Bureau of Reclamation went ahead with the $48 million project.
In 1994, the first salmon returned to the Umatilla in over 70 years. In 1998, the return of nearly 2,000 fish precipitated the first sportsfishing season on the Umatilla in generations. The Tribes' leadership, federal dollars, and the reform of water allocation practices forged new, though fragile, alliances. In the end, interests who could hardly have less in common backed a project that has successfully brought salmon back to spawn in the gravel of the Umatilla River.
Irrigation districts were in support of the Tribes as long as they did not have to give anything up themselves. Outside of curtailing their water-spreading activities, the irrigation districts gave up nothing throughout the entire process of Umatilla restoration. It was the federal government which generated the huge capital for a project that essentially purchased the region's way out of crisis. It is important to note that these issues are not settled, merely set aside through federal largess.
Environmentalists had their own take. WaterWatch saw the Umatilla Basin Project as nothing more than "pork wrapped in an Indian blanket," a sweet deal for Umatilla irrigators to appropriate the Columbia after the Umatilla was dry. Ironically, the Tribes found themselves fighting off challenges to their environmental restoration plan from an environmental group.
This story of struggle is important, in the end, for two reasons. First it shows the possibilities of new kinds of partnerships and alliances. And second, its shows that Plateau Indians like the Umatilla have the power to assert their vision of' what a river is supposed to be. For Mid-Columbia River Indians have known for millennia that the first of the sacred foods is not nusux: salmon, but chiis: water.