For the past 30 years, the region has been stuck in litigation gridlock, with five different federal court decisions all in agreement that the U.S. government is operating the Columbia River hydropower system in a way that jeopardizes the continued existence of salmon in violation of the Endangered Species Act. But that courtroom battle is only the latest chapter in a long and sordid history of the cutback to the Columbia Basin tribes’ right to fish.
In the early 1900s, white settlers began to build fish wheels to catch salmon on the banks of the Columbia River, taking over the best fishing spots and monopolizing the catch. At every turn, the states of Oregon and Washington—under the guise of using their police powers to protect the resource—aided in the thievery. The states passed laws and regulations that outlawed Indigenous People from fishing, required licenses and imposed fees, closed fishing during certain times of year, and even went so far as to reserve steelhead for sport and recreational fishermen only.
For several decades, Indigenous fishermen had to confront the hard choice of abandoning their usual and accustomed fishing places or risk arrest and jail. The basin’s tribes, many of whom had traditionally eaten more than a pound of salmon per person each day, suffered increased poverty and starvation on their reservations as a consequence.
It was in this context that the era of hydropower and dam building began. Bonneville Dam was completed in 1938, and it flooded Indigenous fishing villages and fishing grounds. The federal government promised to rebuild the villages—but it never has. Grand Coulee Dam was finished in 1942. Coulee provided the electrical power necessary to make aluminum essential for World War II planes. And the dam completely blocked all fish passage, robbing the Upper Columbia United Tribes of salmon entirely.
In total, dams and other developments now block more than 55 percent of the historical salmon spawning and rearing habitat of the Columbia River Basin, something that the federal government recently committed $200 million to hopefully better address.
A year after Coulee Dam was finished, the Hanford nuclear site was established on the banks of the Columbia River on lands sacred to the Yakama Nation. Once again, Indigenous people were forcibly removed from their usual and accustomed fishing places. Over the next 40 years, Hanford produced nearly two-thirds of the plutonium used in the country’s nuclear weapons, and the local Indigenous people were left to suffer from radioactive and chemical waste, contaminated lands, and polluted groundwater.
Between 1957 and 1975, the four lower Snake River dams were built on the Columbia River’s largest tributary, despite protest and widespread recognition that these four dams were the greatest threat yet to salmon survival in the basin.
Today, the Northwest likes to boast a large portfolio of cheap, clean hydropower. Forty percent of the electricity used in the Northwest is generated by federal dams in the Columbia River Basin and sold by the Bonneville Power Administration, and the dams play an important role in integrating other renewable energy resources, among other services.