It's been 75 years since salmon and steelhead last swam into the upper reaches of the Columbia River above Grand Coulee Dam.
Grand Coulee Dam and nearby Chief Joseph Dam were built without fish ladders. Now a group called Upper Columbia United Tribes has come up with a detailed plan to study how to get fish over or around those tall dams. Tuesday they released a work plan to investigate fish reintroduction.
Upper Columbia United Tribes' members include the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the Kalispel Tribe, the Spokane Tribe, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. The group's executive director, D.R. Michel, said Native Americans have high hopes it can be done, but the outcome is not preordained.
"It is kind of open question if is feasible,” Michel said. “We know there is a lot of potential habitat and a lot of new technology."
Grand Coulee Dam presents an approximately 350-foot height difference between the base of the dam and the uplake reservoir level. Some ideas to get around that barrier include using tanker trucks to shuttle juvenile smolts and adult returnees around both the dam and some portion of the upstream slack water in Lake Roosevelt.
Another idea is to utilize a suction tube contraption with the descriptive brand name of "Whooshh Fish Transport System."
The initial feasibility study will focus on technology options, produce cost estimates and map available habitat only for the U.S. side of the upper Columbia basin.
Michel said his team hopes to have answers from the initial feasibility study by December 2016. One potential hiccup is that the investigation is not yet funded. The Bonneville Power Administration is one of the first places the tribal group is looking to for assistance. For its part, BPA is using the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council to vet the ambitious fish restoration study.
"It is a huge opportunity to correct a historic wrong, to provide some cultural and subsistence (benefits) for tribal members," Michel said during an interview. "Where some folks are saying... 'We can't afford to do it,' we see it as economic opportunities. Right now, we cannot afford not to do it."
The majority of the suitable fish habitat may be in British Columbia. But there are additional dams on the Columbia River there. The province has been reluctant so far to add them into the conversation.
On Tuesday, the tribes and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council announced the beginning of a 30-day public comment period on the elements of the proposed feasibility study.