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Columbia River Strife Isn't Likely to Dissipate Soon

The U.S., seven states, Canada and Indian tribes all have a say in its management -- and that's bound to create friction.

June 26, 2005|Shannon Dininny | Associated Press Writer

PENDLETON, Ore. — Jay Minthorn doesn't hesitate when asked if two countries, seven states, Indian tribes and countless other stakeholders can ever agree on how to manage the Columbia River. He answers with a resolute "Of course."

History isn't on his side.

From the air on a recent overcast day, the Columbia seems a model of harmony. Paddleboats and barges moved slowly down the river. Windsurfers by the dozens sliced across the water.

But the Columbia River has been a source of strife in the Pacific Northwest for decades, and the arguments don't figure to get quieter anytime soon.

Grown men bicker over "junior" and "senior" water rights. Environmentalists infuriate irrigators and utilities with criticism of how the river is managed. Fish have supplanted the spotted owl as the subject of environmental lawsuits in the region.

But Minthorn, a councilman for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, figures there's no alternative. "Salmon are a way of life for too many people in the Northwest," said Minthorn, 69, who has been working toward salmon recovery for 20 years. "We will not always agree, but we really have to do it for the good of the resources."

The barriers between competing interests are as broad as the river itself. Basic disagreement exists about whether there is enough water to go around. Federal fish managers don't even have a definition for what constitutes salmon recovery.

What river managers face today is really just the culmination of many management decisions over a century, said Rob Masonis of American Rivers, a national nonprofit conservation group.

"It's a very challenging situation, but I also think what we're seeing is changes in our economy, changes in our society leading us to look at the Columbia in a different light," he said.

More than 10 federal agencies with sometimes conflicting missions -- from the Forest Service to the Bureau of Reclamation -- have a role in managing the river. The same goes for various state agencies, tribes and other interest groups. The river's 258,000-square-mile basin includes seven states, 13 Indian reservations and one Canadian province.

Finding agreement can be nearly impossible. In the late 1990s, a regional forum aimed at striking a balance disintegrated when the group was unable to address key issues.

"Part of it is that people were simply unwilling to compromise," said Witt Anderson, chief of the northwestern division Columbia fish program for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Bob Lohn, regional director for NOAA Fisheries, the agency that oversees salmon recovery efforts and harvests, agrees that everyone will have to work together to achieve adequate water for farms, homes, power and fish in the future. But he sees hope.

"It would be easy to say that the stress makes it a lot harder to solve these problems, but it also makes it so that people are more willing to recognize that there is a problem," Lohn said.

For a success story, Lohn points to the heart of the Columbia system, the Umatilla River basin in Oregon, where irrigation districts, states, federal agencies and Indian tribes worked together to restore fish habitat and three stocks of salmon.

"The technical fix is not the problem," said Rick George, who manages and protects treaty rights for the Umatillas. "The challenge is building a team of leaders."

The solution in the Umatilla River basin was to divert water from the Columbia River. Similar fixes have been offered to resolve irrigation woes or declining fish runs in Columbia basin tributaries. It's a tactic some say can't continue for much longer.

Some suggest buying more water from Canada, which is experiencing increasing demand and change of its own.

The Columbia River Treaty was ratified in 1964 to coordinate flood control and optimize energy production on the Columbia River for the United States and Canada.

The treaty has no official expiration date. However, either country may choose to renew, terminate or renegotiate it in 2024 if notice is given in 2014.

North of the border, residents are paying closer attention to issues other than power and flood control, such as the economy, tourism and transportation, said Kindy Gosal, manager of water resources for the Columbia Basin Trust in Canada, which assists communities adversely affected by the dams and reservoirs created under the treaty.

Canada also has its own version of the Endangered Species Act, known as the Species at Risk Act. More than 20 species of plants and animals in Canada's Columbia basin warrant protection under the law.

"We're starting to see other values becoming increasingly important to society here, and that results in conflicts in terms of how the main stem is currently managed under the current treaty structure," Gosal said.

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