- Associated Press - Sunday, February 7, 2016

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - The hope of restoring wild salmon runs above the giant Grant Coulee Dam would take a step closer to reality if the decision is made to proceed with an initial study on the issue.

Salmon runs on the upper Columbia River and its tributaries were blocked by Grand Coulee Dam, which was built in the 1930s, and by Chief Joseph Dam, which was built downstream in the 1950s. Both were built without fish ladders and killed a 10,000-year-old Native American fishery.

A look at the issue and considerations:

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FISH LADDERS

It’s too soon to determine if fish ladders, the traditional method by which fish swim up and through dams, will be the solution, John Sirois, of Upper Columbia United Tribes, said. When Grand Coulee was originally built, the fish ladders required to get fish through the dam were considered too tall to be effective.

One possible solution is the use of so-called salmon cannons, which are essentially pneumatic tubes in which air pressure is used to lift and shoot salmon through the dams. The cannons are being tested by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and are relatively cheap, Sirois said.

Fish could also be collected and trucked around the dams for release downstream, Sirois said. But that method does not work well with baby salmon that are migrating to the ocean, he said.

The original dam builders should have tried harder to make passageways for fish, he said.

“I try to figure out literally what were they thinking,” Sirois said.

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WHY TRIBES CARE

The creation stories of tribes in the region are similar, with the Creator making salmon to serve as a staple in the diet of the people, Sirois said.

“We have the responsibility and the duty and honor to take care of them,” Sirois said of salmon. “That’s at the very heart of what we are trying to do.”

Five tribes are involved in the effort to restore the runs: the Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel, Kootenai and Colville.

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THE STUDY

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which is charged with ensuring an affordable power system while enhancing fish and wildlife in the Columbia River Basin, has requested a feasibility study on restoring the salmon runs. The council will decide this spring whether to proceed with the initial $200,000 study. If approved, the initial study is to be completed by next year.

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QUESTIONS

Major questions include whether salmon could survive in the greatly changed habitat above the dams. Researchers would have to confirm that salmon could survive before any restoration effort could begin.

The study proposal is for only the U.S. side of the border. But some of the adult fish would likely swim into Canadian waters, and that could become an issue as the two countries renegotiate the 1964 Columbia River Treaty, which governs hydropower and flood control on the river.

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