Uniting the Umatilla

Uniting the Umatilla header image
Uniting the Umatilla
Twenty years of negotiations among tribes and irrigators have created a plan to sustain both salmon and crops, and OSU researchers and graduates help make it happen.

Water nourishes the lifeways of all people in the Umatilla Basin,” Alanna Nanegos explained. “It offers the tribes salmon and lamprey, and it offers the farmers irrigation for crops. Both lifeways are important. Now, both lifeways are possible.”

For 70 years, the two lifeways in the Umatilla Basin were in conflict, as the Umatilla River dried up for months each summer. But 20 years of negotiations and cooperation among tribes and irrigators created a landmark collaboration to restore water to the river that would sustain both salmon and crops. How did they do it?

As a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, near Pendleton, Nanegos has witnessed the return of water and salmon to the Umatilla River. But the story goes back many generations, back to 1855 when treaties were written guaranteeing tribes the right to fish, and back to 1905, when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation began constructing dams and reservoirs for irrigation in the Umatilla Basin.

Reclamation projects helped irrigated agriculture flourish in the basin. But, as dams blocked fish passage and parts of the river were drained dry in summer, salmon runs were driven to extinction.

Cheryl Shippentower photo by Lynn Ketchum

Botanist Cheryl Shippentower works with OSU entomologists to restore streamsides with native plants grown from locally collected seeds and cuttings. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

By the early 1980s, conflict had become heated between the tribes and the irrigators. New laws were being enacted to address the problem of endangered species, including the Northwest Power Act, which called for a plan to restore salmon runs impacted by the Columbia River’s hydropower dams. Gary Reed, former superintendent of OSU’s Hermiston Agricultural Research and Experiment Station, recalled that Senator Mark Hatfield came to Pendleton during that time to hold a hearing on the Umatilla water disputes. “The tribes and the irrigators were fighting and the room was charged with conflict. Hatfield said no, he couldn’t do anything to help until the two sides came together. That was the beginning of a huge change in the basin.”

The tribes and the irrigators saw they had more in common than they had first realized. “We had both been promised the same thing, the same water,” recalled Antone Minthorn, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. “We could fight each other or we could join together and find a solution to our common problem.”

It was a risk for everyone involved, according to Reed. Both groups—the irrigators and the tribes—had legal claim to the water. But both groups chose to work together as cooperators. Reed credited Hadley Akins, a local banker, for forming a steering committee in 1984 as a forum for community negotiations. Although the tribe’s treaty rights were a powerful leverage, tribal leaders chose not to use them. “We said we would leave legal issues off the table and look only for a voluntary solution,” Minthorn said. “We would spend the money to restore the water, not to pay lawyers to fight with our neighbors. We would choose negotiation, not litigation.”

The Umatilla must have been one of the most unlikely situations for restoration. “It was not just that the fish were extinct. Much of the river itself was extinct for almost half the year,” Nanegos remembered.

With help from state and federal agencies, the coalition devised a plan to restore salmon and continue irrigated agriculture. Hatfield championed legislation that authorized the Umatilla Basin Project Act in 1988, which called for an exchange of Umatilla water for Columbia River water, bucket-for-bucket, to keep water flowing in the Umatilla River during critical times for migrating steelhead and salmon.

“We had to fix what was broken, and the thing that was broken was water,” said Gary James, manager of the tribal fisheries program and an OSU graduate. With funding from the Bonneville Power Administration and partnerships with state and federal agencies, James helped spearhead the restoration of the Umatilla River. “We looked at the problems comprehensively: first, restore instream flow; then restore fish through propagation and improved passage; then restore the watershed.”

With help from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the tribes developed a fisheries restoration program to reintroduce salmon and to augment depleted steelhead in the system. They built a hatchery and satellite facilities to acclimate fish to wild spawning areas; they improved fish passage over dams and screened irrigation pipes to protect young fish; and they began to repair river and streamside habitats.

Salmon photo by Lynn Ketchum Boy with salmon. Photo by David Wolf

Salmon have returned to spawn in the Umatilla River after an absence of 70 years. Photo: Lynn Ketchum


For the first time in generations, there are enough salmon in the Umatilla River to allow fishing. Photo: David Wolf

As a result, salmon have returned to the Umatilla. “In 13 of the last 16 years, enough adult spring Chinook have returned to Umatilla River to allow fishing for both Indians and non-Indians,” Minthorn said.

The work continues, including ongoing monitoring to determine the long-term success of their restorations. “When I was hired in 1982, I was a one-man band,” James said. “Now there are close to 50 full-time employees in the Department of Natural Resources, most are tribal members, and many received their education at Oregon State University.”

Take fisheries biologist Gene Shippentower, for example. He and his wife, Cheryl, work on the reservation for the tribal Department of Natural Resources and both are graduates of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. Cheryl works as a botanist restoring streamsides with native plants grown in the tribal nursery from locally collected seeds and cuttings.

“The opportunity to be a part of this restoration influenced my decision to go to Oregon State,” said Gene, who studied with OSU Fisheries and Wildlife professors Carl Schreck and Scott Heppell. Gene is using chemical markers to study the performance of hatchery fish spawning in the wild, a critical element to reestablishing successful natural spawning in the Umatilla Basin. “On a personal basis, it’s important to me to contribute new understanding to the whole body of science and make the work of the tribes continue to be credible,” Gene said.

Scientists from Oregon’s Agricultural Experiment Station continue to be involved with the Umatilla restoration. “There’s been lots of success there,” Reed said. “They’ve got the water back and they’ve got the fish back. Now we’re helping them evaluate what restoration actions reap the most benefit.”

Husband-and-wife team David Wooster and Sandra DeBano provide some of that evaluation. Entomologists at OSU’s Hermiston branch experiment station, Wooster and DeBano use invertebrate populations to measure the health of streams and streamside ecosystems. Working closely with tribal biologists, the OSU entomologists make it possible to measure improvements to stream and riparian areas following restoration actions such as planting native species or placement of woody debris in streams.

In addition, Wooster and DeBano are examining the relationship between withdrawing surface water for irrigation and the impacts on fish and invertebrates. Responses to water diversions may take many forms, Wooster explained. There could be reduced numbers of fish and invertebrates, or a change in the kinds of fish and invertebrates, or both—or something entirely unexpected. Working with tribal fisheries biologist Jesse Schwartz, the OSU researchers are testing whether the response of the ecosystem is proportional to the amount of water withdrawn or whether some water can be withdrawn with little response before hitting a critical threshold with a large response.

The Umatilla Project has been a success, at a cost. It depends on money from the Bonneville Power Administration and the availability of water from the Columbia River.

“Water taken from the Columbia River returns to the Columbia River as the Umatilla keeps flowing,” James explained. “The Umatilla Project won’t work everywhere. The hatchery supplementation is expensive; the water exchange is expensive. It is not a naturally sustaining system; it depends on technology that depends on money. But the political model of community cooperation can be used in other places.”

“It’s a story that’s bigger than fish,” Reed said. “It is a commitment to community and environment.”

Umatilla River photo by Lynn Ketchum

Twenty years of negotiations and cooperation among tribes and irrigators have restored water to the Umatilla River to sustain both salmon and crops. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

The model is being used in other places, in particular in the Walla Walla River Basin northeast of the Umatilla. In August 2006, the Milton-Freewater community celebrated the return of salmon to the Walla Walla River, after almost a century of absence. Part of the success of the restoration has been credited to collaboration among tribes, irrigators, and environmentalists to create a local plan together.

“To be Indian people, we must have rivers with fish. And we understand that to be farmers, our neighbors must have water to irrigate crops,” Nanegos said. “When I was young, there was no salmon and very few jobs. All the work to restore the river has helped to restore jobs, restore salmon, and restore spirituality to the tribe.”

Published in: Ecosystems, Water, People