U.S., Canada seek more cooperation on Columbia drainage

In 1807, explorer David Thompson watched salmon spawn at Columbia Lake in what is now British Columbia. The fish were so abundant that his clerk speared them at night by torchlight.

But the mighty runs disappeared in the 1930s with the construction Grand Coulee Dam. An engineering marvel of the Great Depression, the dam 90 miles west of Spokane rises 550 feet above the Columbia River – too tall for fish ladders. The dam blocked salmon, a staple for indigenous people, from the upper Columbia.

“A lot of the tribal people, they didn’t know it would happen,” said Garry Merkel, chairman of Canada’s Columbia Basin Trust. “One year they went to the river. The fish weren’t there.”

Merkel was part of a delegation of U.S. and Canadian officials who visited the dam this week. It was a fitting site for pledges of international cooperation.

The U.S. and Canada now cooperate on a hydropower system that includes 14 dams on the Columbia River. But there’s more work to be done, according to the U.S. Northwest Power Planning Council and Canada’s Columbia Basin Trust.

“This river is often held up as a model for international management of hydropower,” said Bruce Measure, the Northwest Power Planning Council’s vice chairman. However, “there are all types of things that haven’t been explored.”

The organizations work in their respective countries on mitigating the dams’ environmental and social impacts. They want to create a public Web portal that would bring together scientific studies and research from universities, states, cities, tribes and historical societies.

The end goal is increased cooperation, better planning, and perhaps the future formation of a Columbia River Institute.

“There’s a wealth of data out there,” Merkel noted. But “we have thousands of players,” and much of the information gathered stays within its own political jurisdiction, he said.

The Columbia and its tributaries span 260,000 square miles, flowing through parts of seven states and British Columbia.

A uniform standard for measuring water quality along the 1,200-mile river doesn’t exist, Merkel noted. And too many actions occur in isolation, Measure said.

The U.S. or Canada, for instance, might spend money on habitat restoration to beef up a wild salmon stock in the cross-border Okanogan Valley. Unless the fish are protected in the neighboring country, the effort is wasted, Measure said.

At a meeting in Spokane this week, the parties reaffirmed their support for the International Columbia River Basin Center for Information. The idea of a Web portal – and eventually a physical institute – was first floated in 2006. The groups now have a prototype Web portal to show possible partners, said John Harrison, Northwest Power Planning spokesman. Funding sources for the site are still under discussion.

At the height of the Great Depression, when Grand Coulee Dam was proposed, international cooperation was a lower priority.

The dam’s original design was smaller, and would have allowed for fish ladders, Harrison said. The height was later raised for irrigation.

When the Grand Coulee’s scale became apparent, Canada’s foreign office wrote a letter to the Canadian Fisheries Service, alerting the agency that the dam would exterminate the Upper Columbia’s salmon runs.

In its response, the Fisheries Service said impacts would be minimal, since no commercial fisheries would be affected. Both governments downplayed the loss of native salmon fishing.

Reintroducing salmon above Grand Coulee has been considered by the Ktuanxa Nation, whose seven bands include Idaho’s Kootenai Tribe and the Salish Kootenai Tribe in Montana. Merkel, who negotiates on behalf of the tribes, said many technical issues would have to be worked out first.

Said Harrison: “Maybe we’ve gone too far and altered this ecosystem too much to make it happen.”

Representatives of both nations were awed by Grand Coulee Dam’s sheer size this week. The dam is the fourth-largest in world. It incorporates 12 million cubic yards of concrete – enough to build a four-foot-wide sidewalk around the equator.

One 805-megawatt turbine in the dam’s third powerhouse puts out enough electricity to power a city the size of Seattle. And Grand Coulee was built by engineers using slide rules.

“It’s pretty mind-boggling,” said Mike Berg, a member of Columbia Basin Trust’s board of directors.

The reservoir behind Grand Coulee was drawn down during recent high water. It’s refilling at a rate of 3 to 4 feet per day. The water, from upstream sources, represents future electricity – available on demand, said Lynne Brougher, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dam.

“Thank you, Canada,” quipped Mike Sullivan, a tour guide at the dam.

“Where do we send the bill?” one of the Canadians asked.

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