Editorial: Celilo 50 Years Later

By Brent Foster
Executive Director of Columbia Riverkeeper

If there was one day which has defined the U.S. government's treatment of the Columbia River for the last 100 years it would be March 10, 1957. 

On this day, the closing of the floodgates at The Dalles Dam pushed the Columbia's waters up over the top of Celilo Falls flooding what was likely the single most dramatic feature of the Columbia River. 

But when Celilo Falls was inundated 50 years ago, it had ramifications that echoed throughout the Columbia River Basin. It was a sign of just how far the U.S. government was willing to go in the race to turn the Columbia into electricity, aluminum and national power. 

What happened to Celilo Falls was in many ways not unique. Not far downstream of Celilo or “Wyam” as it is known to Columbia Basin tribes, the once fierce Cascade Rapids sits flooded under the slow backwaters of Bonneville Dam. Upstream of Celilo the great Kettle Falls is similarly buried behind the restrained waters of the massive Grand Coulee Dam. 

All along the Columbia the dam building frenzy of the last 50 plus years has come at the cost of the Columbia's most sacred places and the tribal cultures which had depended and continue to depend on the Columbia.

The actual price of a cheap kilowatt of electricity, a cheap gallon of water for agriculture or cheap flood protection can never be measured in dollars, but only in sadness, loss and a legacy of shame that our culture of progress will have to carry until we make it right. 

As a white conservationist who fell in love with Celilo Falls only through photographs, video and stories, I would never try to articulate what the loss of Celilo Falls and the many other features of the Columbia means to the people that lived with a wild Columbia River for over 10,000 years. 

I will not try to explain what it feels like when the salmon are so few in number that they must be bought for traditional ceremonies. I cannot reflect on what it was like to loose the ability to drink freely from the Great River of the West while fishing at Celilo Falls. 

But 50 years after the flooding of Celilo it is impossible to ignore the reality that the treatment of Celilo Falls and the Columbia River's first people was symbolic of how federal and state governments valued the entire Columbia River and its first people.

In many ways this same perverse view of the Columbia continues today. The states of Oregon and Washington, for example, use loopholes in state law to allow industrial and municipal polluters to dump over 100 billion, yes billion, gallons of toxic pollutants into the Columbia at concentrations that exceed the state's own toxicity standards. Attempts to close the “toxic mixing zone loopholes” which allow these discharges are fought by the states,' the Northwest's most powerful special interests, and the elected leaders that defend the status quo.

At a time when the State of Washington cannot find the funds to provide basic dental care to children, it has no problem finding over $ 200 million for the planning of the proposed Black Rock mega-dam. This obscene plan for a multi-billion dollar off-river storage reservoir near Hanford would meet industrial agriculture's desire to turn an additional 60,000 acres of native desert into farmland, but would of course come at the cost of a Columbia that is already staggering from the last 100 years of abuse. 

The Bush Administration's continued efforts over the last several years to squeeze even more “cheap” hydropower out of the Columbia have fortunately been thwarted by litigation. The hubris, however, behind such efforts at a time when wild salmon teeter on the edge of extinction reflects the unfortunate gulf between the values of Northwest residents and the governments that represents us. 

But while these and many other threats to the Columbia, such as energy speculators' rush to build Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) industrial ports and new coal plants in the Columbia Estuary, highlight the threats that still face the Columbia, there are at least some reasons to optimistic.

The U.S. EPA's recent listing of the Columbia River as a “Waterbody of National Significance,” for example, offers the chance for the Columbia to receive the level of national attention enjoyed now by only a small selection of America's most at risk waterbodies, such as the Everglades and the Great Lakes. This designation along with EPA's new toxics reduction project on the Columbia begins to reflect the fact that clean water, fishable salmon runs and a healthy Columbia River is important to a broad spectrum of Northwest residents that crosses political, ideological, racial and class boundaries.

While EPA's goal of reducing toxics by 10% in the Columbia is under ambitious given the magnitude of the toxic threats on the Columbia, that EPA's northwest offices have been able to spearhead any toxics reduction effort under the Bush Administration is impressive. That said, EPA and the tribal, state and non-profit entities including Columbia Riverkeeper, that are involved in this toxics reduction effort will only deserve credit if we make tangible accomplishments. More plans, more talk and more good intentions alone will do nothing to decrease the concentration of toxics that are occurring in the Columbia's fish, sediment and waters.

While the flooding of Celilo Falls may be reflective of how federal and state governments have treated the Columbia for the last 100 years it is entirely within our power to redefine this relationship for the next 100 years. The flooding of Celilo Falls and the other great rapids, falls and contours of the free-flowing Columbia is a story of abuse and arrogance, but also one that reflects the great power that humans have to change and shape a river to reflect their values. 

Restoring the Columbia River to reflect a better balance of our values that includes clean water, vibrant runs of salmon, and a respect for tribal treaty rights, will not be cheap, easy, or quick, but it is well within our power. While we cannot change the history of the last 50 years that has passed since the marching bands celebrated the closing of the floodgates at The Dalles Dam, we can work to change the history that will be written over the next 50 years.

Paul Koberstein