Warm Springs Reservation Battles Nestlé Over Columbia Fishing Rights
By Will Jukes
“One day it just popped into my head,” said Elke Kirk, telling us last week about his inspiration to become a fishing guide on the Deschutes River. “We’ve got this great natural resource, 39 miles of water all to ourselves.”
Kirk’s resume was already impressive when he started guiding fishermen five years ago. As a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, he had grown up fishing salmon and steelhead on the Deschutes and Columbia Rivers. It was like a second home, and Kirk wanted Littleleaf to be as much a platform for river preservation as it was a business. “I wanted to be a travel guide,” said Kirk, “and I wanted to be a part of the river restoration, me and my wife, to do river cleanups and to make people aware of the qualities and conditions of our river.”
Historically, fishing was a staple for the Warm Springs tribes, who hold fishing rights on the Columbia as well the Deschutes. Today, Elke and his wife are probably among the only people make a living on the river. The best fishing spots were destroyed by dam projects in the 20th century. But even today, fishing has helped the reservation through hard times. There’s four tribes here who share the fishery on the Columbia. Right now there’s 70% unemployment here, so a lot of these people depend on it,” said Kirk. “It’s just a few fishermen, but they give those fish to other people on the reservation who need it.”
Now, though, the tribe’s fishing is threatened once again. The problem isn’t a dam this time, but a proposed Nestlé bottling plant in Cascade Locks that could permanently alter the ecology of the Deschutes River, where Elke has gained national fame as a salmonfly expert.
The Cascade Locks project has met resistance ever since Nestlé approached the town in 2009 with a plan to draw water from Oxbow Springs. The struggling town of 1,100 leaped at Nestlé’s promise of 50 new full time jobs. Town officials say increased tax revenue from the plant could go to repairing the water and sewage system, which leaks one drop of water for every drop that comes out of the tap. Outside of Cascade Locks the reception was cooler. Many Oregonians questioned the environmental impact of the plant, and the ethics of selling public resources to private interests. Nestlé itself has been a point of criticism, especially since coming under scrutiny for operating plants in drought-stricken areas of Southern California. Well out of view, though, was the issue of native fishing rights.
“We took a petition with a little over 320,000 and gave them to Kit Brown,” said Kirk. “We’re working with quite a few others so we can put a stop to it.” That was in September, when Kirk joined fellow reservation residents in a demonstration outside the state capitol to protest the threat against their treaty-protected fishing territory. It was one of the few times in six years that the tribes had gotten the media’s attention.
While the Warm Springs tribes make up a small segment of the concerned population, their fishing rights could have the power to scuttle the plant proposal. The supreme court has ruled that the government must ensure the health of native fisheries, and the 1980 Northwest Power Act made that responsibility explicit.
Unfortunately, neglect for tribal rights has a long precedent. The court decisions that finally enforced protections for tribal fisheries came too late to save the best fishing grounds. First the Bonneville Dam flooded Cascades Rapids in 1938, and then The Dalles Dam covered Celilo Falls in 1964. Private companies routinely violated treaties, often without reprimand. One developer actually dredged out all of Mill Creek in the 1950s. They were looking for gold, of all things.
Fortunately the government is on better behavior lately, and they’ll probably respect the treaty rights if danger to the fisheries can be shown. The question now is whether the Nestlé plant could have that kind of impact. Kirk thinks that’s a no-brainer. “They want to take the 118 million gallons a year out of Oxbow Springs, which is spawning ground for steelhead and salmon,” said Kirk. “[The spring] also helps cool off the Columbia River. It’s on a sheet of land protected by our fishing rights, so it would go against our treaty. And as guides, we’re always picking up plastic bottles along the river. I don’t want to see more of that.”
Elke’s statement is backed up by scientists working with the Deschutes River Alliance. Their forecast for the lower Deschutes is grim: if the plant is built, they predict a 50 percent decline in redband trout numbers two years down the line. Within five years, that number may rise to 75 percent.
The most profound and concerning impact won’t be obvious to the layman, and may not be obvious to state legislators either: drawing water from Oxbow Springs will raise the local water temperature. The change could be just a few degrees, but it could create a staging area for invasive species to wreak havoc and spread up the Deschutes. Drought years could pose a special hazard, as the temperature could rise even higher. And in the middle of the worst drought on record, some of these processes may already be under way.
“One of our scientist friends from the Deschutes River Alliance is conducting tests on the lower Deschutes by the mouth. We’re having a really bad problem with two invasive algal species that have made it all the way up to the reservation. Down there [by the river mouth] is one whole area that’s been completely choked out. I haven’t caught a steelhead in two years just because of the algae.”
The algae has pushed out mayflies while allowing zebra snails to proliferate. The fish have adapted to a snail heavy diet, which is good news for Kirk. They can’t adapt to everything, though, and one particular surprise could be the worst omen of all: smallmouth and largemouth bass are cropping up in greater numbers and moving farther up the river than usual. Bass and salmonid live comfortably together only in a very narrow temperature range. Bass enjoy temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees. Salmonid prefer water from the low 60s to the 68, and survival isn’t guaranteed when the temperature rises above 70.
Kirk and his steelhead don’t have to worry too much in the short term. The plant hasn’t been given the go-ahead, and even then it would be years before it begins operating. Nestlé is getting impatient though: after years of gridlock, they’ve pushed the town council of Cascade Locks to fast-track approval of the plant, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife has demonstrated willingness to sell Nestlé the right to draw water from Oxbow Springs. All things considered, it’s good that Elke and the Warm Springs Reservation have gotten the word out when they did.