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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Treaty negotiator: Canada could revisit salmon restoration to British Columbia spawning grounds

JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation, talks about the importance of salmon to the tribe during Wednesday’s discussion about the Columbia River Treaty at the Pacific Northwest Economic Region’s summit in Spokane. (Becky Kramer / The Spokesman-Review)

The return of salmon to British Columbia’s spawning grounds could be considered for study, one of Canada’s top officials said Wednesday.

“We’re supportive of discussing it,” said Sylvain Fabi, Canada’s chief Columbia River Treaty negotiator, during the Pacific Northwest Economic Region’s annual summit in Spokane.

Fabi’s remarks came during a discussion about how to modernize the treaty at the summit, which brings together about 600 U.S. and Canadian leaders to discuss regional issues.

Ratified in 1964, the Columbia River Treaty was narrowly crafted to address hydropower production and flood control along the 1,200-mile-long river. As the countries prepare to renegotiate key provisions, they’re pondering how to address environmental issues, such as salmon restoration.

More than 1 million salmon and steelhead migrated into Canada each year before the construction of Grand Coulee Dam blocked fish passage to the upper Columbia Basin.

Return of the salmon is a longstanding dream for U.S. tribes and Canada’s First Nations, who say the fish were important to their culture, diet and spirituality for thousands of years. In a recommendation to the U.S. State Department, the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suggested that the two countries share the cost of investigating what it would take to get salmon back to Canadian spawning grounds, and if warranted, reintroduce them to the upper basin.

Canada, however, was initially cool to the idea. Fabi’s remarks, though noncommittal, indicate Canada may be open to studying how reintroduction could occur.

The initial work would have to be done on the U.S. side of the border, Canadian officials noted. Grand Coulee Dam was constructed without fish passage in the 1930s, and Chief Joseph Dam was built downstream in the 1950s, also without passage.

Canada and the U.S. met for the first treaty negotiating session at the end of May in Washington, D.C. A second session is scheduled in August in Nelson, British Columbia, and a third session will take place in Portland in October.

“Many people in the Northwest have a direct interest in the outcomes,” said Jill Smail, the U.S.’s chief treaty negotiator. “We’re looking ahead to how this treaty can be mutually beneficial for the 21st century, and faithful to the desires of the people who live in the basin.”

Whether they know it or not, Washington’s 7 million residents are affected by the treaty, said Tom Karier, Eastern Washington’s representative on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

Storage dams built in Canada and Montana as a result of the treaty provide low-cost, carbon-free power, and protect the Portland-Vancouver area from flooding, he said. Reservoirs behind the dams also provide recreation for the region’s residents.

As the treaty is renegotiated, it must accommodate river conditions that fish can survive in, said JoDe Goudy, chairman for the Yakama Nation. Water temperatures above 68 degrees can kill salmon, and led to mass die-offs of sockeye runs in 2015.

“I don’t think any representative in this room is for the extinction of salmon,” Goudy said.

Flood control negotiations are crucial, too, others speakers said. In 2024, “on call” flood control provisions in the treaty expire. The provision allows the U.S. to call on Canada to store more water during periods of high forecast flows. Under new provisions, U.S. reservoirs would have to store higher volumes of water before seeking assistance from Canada.

U.S. irrigators could face uncertainty under that scenario, speakers said. Reservoirs in the Yakima River basin, for instance, might have to be emptied for flood control during times they normally fill up with snowmelt.

Many Canadians support the restoration of salmon and steelhead above Grand Coulee Dam, and above Canadian treaty dams that block fish passage farther upstream, said Wayne Stetski. He’s a member of Canada’s Parliament, representing the region of British Columbia that’s home to Columbia Lake, the headwaters of the Columbia River.

“There will be grown men and women in tears when that first salmon swims up the river into Columbia Lake,” Stetski predicted.