Creative Solutions: The Umatilla Basin Project
Friendship and good relationship has been at the heart of the Umatilla Basin Project from its initial development through the most recent negotiations. Antone Minthorn, CTUIR, 1992
We feel fortunate to have the kind of cooperative and dedicated neighbors that we do. Together we have worked out solutions to the difficult situations in which we have been placed.
Bill Porfily, Irrigation District manager
Historic river development, agriculture, endangered species, water and treaty rights are closely connected in the Columbia River Basin. According to Joseph Cone, by the 1970s farmers viewed Umatilla County as "one of the best remaining places in North America for high-quality vegetable production." But, problems existed. The Umatilla River watered 50,000 acres and ran dry during the summer. Not only were salmon extinct, but the same water was promised twice - first to Indians through reserved treaty rights, and then to farmers.
As Columbia River salmon runs declined, Indians exerted their treaty rights. In 1969 U.S. v. Oregon guaranteed tribes a "fair and equitable share" of salmon. Five years later "fair and equitable" was interpreted as half the harvestable salmon destined for Indians' traditional fishing places. These decisions and salmon listings under the Endangered Species Act made it possible for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) to push for returning salmon to the Umatilla River. In the 1980s, CTUIR solicited the cooperation of federal and local agencies and irrigators, posing a solution to salmon extinction in the Umatilla River - a water exchange. Under the Northwest Power Act, a two-phase plan gave tribes an opportunity to begin restoration planning. Pumping water from behind McNary Dam for farmers left Umatilla water for the fish, and in 1994 the first salmon returned to the Umatilla River. By 1998, two thousand salmon swam upstream.
The Umatilla Basin Project is controversial. Some say that such technological fixes prevent the restoration of natural rivers and wild salmon. Others, like Antone Minthorn, say that by making treaties central, because they promised fish to the Indians, and consequently an environment good enough to fish in, the project demonstrates a useful model for Columbia River restoration.