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Proposal To Resurrect Columbia River's Celilo Falls Draws Flak

An audacious proposal to revive the Columbia River’s historic Celilo Falls drew heavy flak when it was aired at the Oregon Legislature Thursday.

The idea is to uncover the roaring waterfall by temporarily drawing down the reservoir behind The Dalles Dam.

For thousands of years, native peoples from across the Northwest gathered at Celilo Falls to fish and trade. It was so important in pre-European contact times that some historians nicknamed the Celilo area as the "Wall Street of the West."

In 1957, the enormous rapids and cascades disappeared under the rising waters behind newly constructed The Dalles Dam.

Now state Representative Ken Helm from Beaverton has resurrected the idea of reviving the legendary waterfalls with a non-binding resolution - technically a "joint memorial." It would ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to assess the feasibility of lowering the Celilo pool to reveal Celilo Falls for one to two weeks.

But some of the intended beneficiaries of the gesture came to the capitol to voice opposition. The inundation of the falls displaced Tabitha Whitefoot's tribal family more than half a century ago.

"We're not going to see my hometown, Spearfish. We're not going to see it in its beauty or have our roots or have anything back the way it was,” she said. “It's just going to be mud. I don't know why people would want to do this."

Other Native Americans said uncovering the falls temporarily would be a cruel tease and reopen old wounds.

"My people can’t return to Celilo Falls to fish," Warm Springs tribal member Susan Guerin wrote to the House Rural Communities, Land Use and Water Committee. "It won’t mend the broken hearts of my family from whom the Celilo Falls were taken. The study will tear off wounds long scabbed-over, and for what; the benefit of spectators?"

The legislation's chief sponsor indicated the measure will not move forward this session.

"I just want to note that as written it is a preliminary baby step to ask the Corps of Engineers if it is indeed possible to operate The Dalles Dam to accomplish that," Representative Helm said at Thursday's public hearing. "And no more -- just the beginning place for such a conversation into the future."

The falls are now entombed under about 40 feet of water.

The reservoir behind The Dalles Dam, known as Lake Celilo, is one of several that allow barges and ships to navigate the Columbia River to upriver ports such as Pasco and Lewiston. In 2008, the Army Corps of Engineers released a sonar survey of the river bottom in front of Celilo Village. The underwater survey showed the falls and surrounding rock formations remain intact.

In recent years, several small nonprofits have emerged to advocate for restoring Celilo Falls and its historic fishery. They include The Friends of Celilo Falls, which takes pains to say that it does not represent or speak for Columbia River tribes.

In written testimony, Friends director Sean Aaron Cruz said a permanently restored Celilo Falls could perhaps become a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.