Salmon Success in the Umatilla River!


For nearly 70 years, salmon were not present in the Umatilla River. Irrigation diversions and habitat damage extinguished them in the early 1900s. Today, salmon are once again living in the Umatilla River and making a remarkable comeback, thanks to a cooperative effort led by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Salmon runs were revived in the Umatilla River while also protecting the local irrigated agriculture economy.

The Umatilla Basin is one of the few success stories in the Columbia Basin and it’s because local people, including Indians and irrigators, worked together to make this miracle possible.


The Story...

In the early part of the 20th century, the Bureau of Reclamation built a large irrigation project in the Umatilla River Basin. The irrigated agriculture economy was born and flourished, but the salmon were driven into extinction.

The project dewatered the Umatilla River several months out of the year, and its dams blocked fish passage. A conflict was created between tribes, who relied on salmon for subsistence, economic, religious, and cultural reasons, and the irrigation farmers who were benefiting from the use of Umatilla River water.

The Confederated Tribes and the irrigation districts, however, recognized that the conflict they faced was not of their own creation. The federal government had promised the same water to the irrigators that it had a responsibility to protect for the Tribes under the Treaty of 1855.

The federal government had pitted the Tribes and irrigators against one another. But instead of devoting time and resources to fighting one another, the Tribes and irrigators decided to focus on creating a solution together.

The solution was the Umatilla Basin Project. The project was developed by the Confederated Tribes, irrigators, Bureau of Reclamation, Bonneville Power Administration, Oregon Water Resources Department and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Former Senator Mark Hatfield played an important role in helping the parties negotiate this solution, and in 1988 introduced legislation to authorize the project.

The Umatilla Basin Project is a bucket-for-bucket water exchange that delivers Columbia River water to the participating irrigation districts. In exchange, the irrigation districts leave water in the Umatilla River for migrating fish. Every bucket of water taken from the Columbia River eventually flows back to it from the Umatilla River.

Other projects in this comprehensive effort include fish passage improvements (such as ladders and screens), stream habitat enhancement, hatchery actions, and research to measure success.

For thirteen of the last sixteen years (in 2005), enough adult spring chinook have returned to the Umatilla River to provide a spring chinook fishing season for both Indian and non-Indian fishers. The tribe realizes that fisheries resources will probably never be as abundant as they were just 100 years ago, and there is still a long way to go to reach population goals for the basin. But they also know that extinct salmon runs or a handful of federally listed populations is not an option, and neither is devastation of local economies.

The Umatilla Basin Project serves as a model for how people can resolve water and salmon conflicts relatively peacefully and without spending time and money in the courtroom. It provides a tried and true method for resolving conflicts that are the result of historic practices that failed to recognize Treaty reserved rights. Instead of years of divisive litigation, the Umatilla Basin approach has been to devote the parties’ efforts and resources to creating a solution that works for all the affected interests.

Antone Minthorn, Chairman of the CTUIR Board of Trustees, has been a driving force behind these cooperative solutions. He summarized why he believes the Umatilla Basin Project has been so successful:

“Our tribal philosophy has been to negotiate rather than litigate. If we have to, we will litigate to protect our treaty-reserved rights, but, we have seen that we can create solutions which meet everyone’s needs by sitting down with our neighbors, listening to each other, and developing our own solutions. We want to apply what we’ve learned locally to help revive threatened salmon populations in the region. We believe the cooperative process between neighbors can be used as a model for success in the region and beyond.”

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