Standing on the banks of a calm section of the Columbia River that was once Celilo Falls on Columbus Day — reclaimed as Indigenous Peoples’ Day — representatives from the Yakama and Lummi nations called for the federal government to remove three hydroelectric dams in the lower Columbia river: Bonneville Dam, The Dalles Dam and John Day Dam.

JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation, said that the native nations along the Columbia River did not consent to the creation of the dams, and that they inhibit access to traditional fishing sites — such as Celilo Falls, which was flooded when The Dalles Dam was completed in 1957 — and continue to negatively affect the traditional foods that the Yakama Nation relies on, including salmon. 

“We are calling upon that action to happen because when you go back and you understand the truth, the truth with regard to what has materialized this lake behind us all, once one of the greatest and free-flowing mightiest … rivers in the world, these dams materialized … through the various points and times of assertion to dominion, domination, based upon historical documents that have nothing to do with the original free nations of these territories,” he said, to the elders and media personnel that gathered for a press conference.
The Yakama and Lummi nations said that these three dams violate an 1855 treaty between the Yakama Nation and then Washington Territory Governor Isaac Stevens, specifically a section that guarantees the Yakama access to traditional fishing sites along the river outside the reservation.

“These dams, I’ve always, always wondered why, what was the reason for them in the first place, you know?” said Olsen Meanus Jr., a Celilo chief. “My parents, my grandparents, they always told us, it was because of white man’s progress. That was more important to them than our right of tradition.”
Bonneville Lock and Dam was completed in 1938 as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal; The Dalles Lock and Dam and John Day Lock and Dam were completed in 1957 and 1971, respectively, under the Flood Control Act of 1950. 

The maximum power-generating capacity for Bonneville Dam in 2018 (most recent data available by press time) was 1,225 megawatts, The Dalles 2,086 megawatts, and John Day 2,480 megawatts. Hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest produce more energy than any other North American river system, according to data from the Bonneville Power Administration, which manages the dams and markets the generated electricity.

The BPA released a statement following Monday’s press conference: “We remain focused on continuing our work with our many partners throughout the region to address the environmental, economic and cultural issues within the Columbia River Basin.”

All three dams are operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers, who also released a statement: “The Corps of Engineers values its partnerships with the many Tribal Nations across the Columbia River Basin. We continue collaboration and discussions with Tribes and stakeholders on the critical environmental, socioeconomic and cultural resources issues in the basin.”
The Corps of Engineers has a mitigation program for The Dalles and John Day dams that specifically focuses on the impacts to fisheries resulting from the construction and operation of the two dams.

As part of that program, the corps collects, hatches, raises and releases Chinook salmon. The program was last updated in August, following an environmental survey that recommended increasing adult Chinook production.
“These salmon, they’re almost done with their season, there isn’t as many as there used to be,” said Meanus. “Fish are smaller, and they’re a lot less.”
Four species of salmon are currently listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and steelhead trout are classified as threatened.
The decline of salmon in the Snake River, a tributary of the Columbia River, increased after the 1960s, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, though salmon populations had been in decline for decades before.

“At a time when salmon and orca populations are in crisis, we need bold ideas and courageous leadership,” said Brett Vanden Heuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, in a written statement supporting the Yakama and Lummi nations’ proposal.
“Our decades-long effort to recover endangered salmon is not working. The stagnant reservoirs behind the dams create dangerously hot water, and climate change is pushing the river over the edge. Year after year, the river gets hotter,” he said, “The system is broken, but we can fix it. Let’s transition from costly hydropower to clean energy, honor our nation’s treaties, and restore the mighty Columbia.”
While dam removals can cause short-term problems due to sudden changes in water and sediment flow, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in the long-term, rivers typically revert back to their original flow and fish populations benefit from the restored ecosystem and removal of physical barriers. 

“We have a choice, and it’s one or the other: Dams or salmon,” Goudy said.
“For the record, I choose salmon. We have always chose salmon … We are the salmon people,” said Jay Julius, chairman of the Lummi Nation.
He added that many of the native nations’ traditional foods in the Columbia: Salmon, herring, orca, and others, “don’t have much time” unless direct action is taken to preserve them.
“And what happens to them inevitably happens to us, and what has happened to us historically is happening to them today,” he said. “And we have to take a stand if not for ourselves, we have to take a stand for future generations. We have to look as far as our minds eye can see into the future and think about them.”

“If our resources leave us, the people of this land will follow,” Goudy said.
Before ending the press conference, Goudy said that he hopes both sides can come together “and develop a future that our collective children … can live in.”