Grand Coulee Dam

The Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in Washington state.

The impact of a new agreement between native tribes and the Canadian government to restore salmon to the upper reaches of the Columbia River will depend on how the fish are managed, says the director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

The Syilx Okanagan, Ktunaxa and Secwepemc Indigenous Nations, Canada and British Columbia recently signed a renewable three-year letter of agreement to explore reintroducing salmon into the Canadian portion of the Upper Columbia River Basin.

They hope to restore fish stocks to support indigenous food and social and ceremonial needs, according to a joint press release.

The effort will complement current negotiations between Canada and the U.S. modernizing the Columbia River Treaty. Whether and how much the agreements will impact irrigation water availability in the region remain up in the air.

Canada’s federal government is working closely with British Columbia and the tribes to shape its approach to the negotiations, according to the press release.

“We agreed to discuss fish reintroduction with Canada,” a representative for the U.S. State Department Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs said in an email to the Capital Press. “We understand the issue of fish reintroduction is important to many Columbia Basin tribes and residents.”

Currently, flow augmentation from U.S. projects, supported by releases from Canadian Treaty projects, improve conditions for out-migrating juvenile salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River, the representative said.

“Maintaining and improving the health of existing stocks of anadromous fish in the Columbia Basin through sound management is an essential prerequisite to any meaningful consideration of reintroduction into blocked areas in the future,” the representative added.

The move to establish fish runs above the Grand Coulee Dam would first impact that dam and Chief Joseph Dam, said Derek Sandison, the Washington State Department of Agriculture director and former director of the state Department of Ecology’s Office of the Columbia River.

Construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in the 1930s and 1940s blocked salmon from reaching the Upper Columbia River in Canada, leading to the extirpation of salmon stocks in those areas.

Bringing the salmon back would require an upstream adult salmon migration component and a downstream juvenile salmon component, Sandison told the Capital Press.

The specific methods used for each would potentially have effects on the water supply and flood-risk management, he said. Lake Roosevelt plays a large role in managing downstream flood risk. During years of high runoff, spring lake levels are significantly lowered to hold a large influx of water and prevent downstream flooding.

“In terms of downstream migration, the question is can you maintain a viable outlet for juveniles as the lake is fluctuated to that degree?” he said.

Sandison expects the impacts on agriculture to become clear as the methods are proposed.

“I don’t think there’s enough information now to make any kind of definitive judgment,” he said.

Ecosystem function was included in both the U.S. and Canadian regional recommendations for the treaty, primarily focusing on river flow more than fish passage, Sandison said.

He doesn’t expect the new agreement to make treaty negotiations more difficult.

The next round of negotiations is Sept. 10-11 in Cranbrook, British Columbia.

Restoring anadromous fish such as salmon was discussed extensively in 2012-2013 during formulation of the regional recommendations and sovereign review, Sandison said.

“It’s been talked about a lot,” he said.

The department is following the discussions, Sandison said.

“We need more specifics to be able to determine what the impacts might be to agriculture,” he said.

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