Columbia River basin and federal and non-federal dams. SOURCE: FCRPS (2001).

August 1955.  Fishing at Celilo Falls, where the Dalles dam was later constructed.  In the background, an American Indian prepares to take a fish out of the net from a scaffold.  Photo courtesy of Ernest Smerdon (NRC website)

  Center for

  Environmental Law & Policy


The Washington Department of Ecology requested the analysis and recommendations of the National Academies of Science on how to manage water in the Columbia River.  As the NAS noted,

The Washington State Department of Ecology issues water use permits for the portion of the Columbia River that flows through the State of Washington.  Water withdrawal permit decisions must be balanced with the state’s obligation to protect and enhance the quality of the natural environment, including salmon habitat.”

Highlights from the Executive Summary of the NAS Report:

•Columbia River salmon today are at a critical point. … Further decreases in flows or increases in water temperature are likely to reduce survival rates.  Trends such as human population growth in the region and prospective regional climate warming further increase risks regarding salmon survival.

•Decisions regarding the issue of additional water withdrawal permits are matters of public policy, but if additional permits are issued, they should include specific conditions that allow withdrawals to be discontinued during critical periods.  Allowing for additional withdrawals during the critical periods of high demand, low flows, and comparatively high water temperatures identified in this report would increase risks of survivability to listed salmon stocks and would reduce management flexibility during these periods.

•The State of Washington and other basin jurisdictions should convene a joint forum for documenting and discussing the environmental and other consequences of proposed water diversions that exceed a specified threshold.

•The State of Washington and other Columbia River basin entities should continue to explore prospects for water transfers and other market-based programs as alternatives to additional withdrawals.

•The conversion of water rights to uninterruptible status will decrease flexibility of the system during critical periods of low flows and comparatively high water temperatures.  Conversions to uninterruptible rights, during these critical periods, are not recommended.

  1. Sound, comprehensive salmon management strategies will depend not only on science, but also on a willingness of elected and duly appointed leaders and managers to take actions in the face of uncertainties.

“Columbia River water flows have generated enormous social and economic benefits. These uses include hydropower generation, flood control, instream flows for fish and habitat, irrigation, commercial and subsistence fishing, navigation, and water for municipalities and industries. A vast number of jurisdictions and individuals use Columbia River water, including seven U.S. states, the Canadian province of British Columbia, and several Indian reservations. The geographical focus in this study, however, is on the mainstem Columbia River in the State of Washington.” 

(National Academies Press)