A growing movement on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border wants to make the restoration of salmon runs in southeast British Columbia a key issue in negotiations over the Columbia River Treaty.
If the runs are revived, salmon would once again spawn in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains where they vanished nearly 70 years ago after the Grand Coulee dam was built in Washington State.
"The dream of salmon restoration is alive and well," said Gerry Nellestijn, who is a member of a citizen group appointed by the B.C. government to provide a "sounding board" for issues related to the Columbia River Treaty.
Mr. Nellestijn said the opportunity to re-establish the runs arises because the treaty, an international agreement governing the management of water in the Columbia River, is up for renegotiation for the first time since it was ratified in 1964.
"A lot of people don't realize what a big opportunity this is. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to restore our salmon runs," he said.
Salmon were cut off from reaching Canada in the Columbia when the Grand Coulee was completed in 1942.
Canada and the United States began to look at joint management of the Columbia in 1944, but didn't get around to ratifying a treaty until 1964. Under the deal, B.C. built three dams on the upper Columbia to hold back water that is released to control floods and on demand to maximize power generation south of the U.S. border. B.C. was paid $275-million up front and receives entitlement to half of the hydroelectricity generated in the U.S. by the controlled water releases.
Mr. Nellestijn, who is also the co-ordinator of the Salmo Watershed Streamkeepers Society, said the dams have caused widespread environmental damage in B.C., where river and reservoir levels fluctuate wildly.
"Fish weren't an issue when they negotiated the treaty," Mr. Nellestijn said.
He said 40- to 60-pound chinook salmon once spawned in the Salmo River, a tributary of the Columbia in the Kootenays, and other species spawned upstream in tributaries in the Rockies.
"We have lost our coho, chinook, burbot, steelhead and sturgeon. It's pretty much a disgrace to think about how we allowed this to happen," he said. "In the treaty they talk about the dollars and cents of the Canadian [power] entitlement, but we are entitled to a healthy environment too."
John Osborn, a spokesman for the Sierra Club in Spokane, Wash., said the environmental group has written to the two U.S. federal organizations involved in the treaty, urging that "salmon and river health" be made a priority in any negotiations.
Mr. Osborn said restoring salmon runs would require building fish ladders at both the 160-metre high Grand Coulee dam and the 72-metre high Chief Joseph dam, which is located just downstream.
Fisheries experts would also then have to figure out how to reintroduce salmon runs that became locally extinct.
"If we can put a man on the moon we can return salmon to the waters of British Columbia," said Mr. Osborn of the challenge.
In an e-mail Matt Gordon, a spokesman for the B.C. Ministry of Energy, said the provincial government is currently conducting a review of the Columbia River Treaty, as are the two U.S. agencies involved – the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Mr. Gordon said the B.C. government "will not comment on issues raised by U.S. stakeholders as part of the U.S. process."
He also said the management of salmon is a federal issue.
A representative of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was not immediately available for comment.