Tribes: $2 million more for fish
Jul 21 2002 12:00AM  By Keith Chu of the Union-Bulletin

MILTON-FREEWATER, WA- The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation plan to ask the Bonneville Power Administration for a mid-year funding increase of more than $2 million over the next two years for fish passage projects on the Walla Walla River.

The funding increase request will be made Aug. 9 at the BPA's quarterly budget meeting.

The Walla Walla Juvenile and Adult Fish Passage Improvements Project, funded largely by the BPA and administered by the tribes, received $2.4 million this year to design and build fish ladders and screens on the Walla Walla River and its tributaries.

The budget for fiscal years 2002 through 2005 was approved last fall. The project is scheduled to receive $480,000 in 2003 and $500,000 in 2004.

The funding request would pay for the replacement of an outdated fish screen at Milton Ditch and would consolidate the water withdrawal there with the Little Walla Walla diversion point in 2003, said Gary James, fisheries program manager for the tribes. The request would fund two more proposed screens in 2004.

The tribes originally proposed completing the Milton Ditch project next year, and three more ladder and screen projects in 2004. At current funding levels the Milton Ditch project would take nearly 10 years to complete, according to a draft of the tribe's proposal.

Replacing the screen at Milton Ditch is an important step in reducing hazards to endangered steelhead, bull trout and spring chinook salmon, said Brian Wolcott, coordinator for the Walla Walla Basin Watershed Council.

``That one in particular is a priority right now for passage as it is one of the few screens we have in Oregon that is noncompliant,'' Wolcott said.

James agreed. ``I'll guarantee you they're totally out of compliance with government passage criteria,'' he said. ``These sites, they're broken, there's a problem. What that tells you is they kill fish. It seems like such a no-brainer to me.''

The structural improvements attract less attention than water rights, but screens can make a big difference for fish, said James.

James is particularly excited about the Little Walla Walla diversion structure on the South Fork of the Walla Walla River, outside of Milton-Freewater.

Before the new screen was put in, ``it wouldn't surprise me if half of the outmigrants (steelhead fish going to ocean) per year were killed (at the Little Walla Walla diversion),'' James said. ``That was the worse fish killer on the river ... (The fish) just sat there and they couldn't figure out where to go.''

Built two years ago with money from the BPA, the structure includes a modern, fish-safe screen, a new channel for diverting water to irrigators, and a rubber inflatable dam that can be raised or lowered to regulate stream flows.

While the Walla Walla is outside the reservation, the tribes have a historical stake in the health of the river, said Terry Shepherd, a policy analyst for the tribes.

``The watershed is completely within the tribes' ceded lands,'' Shepherd said. ``Within those lands they retain the rights to hunt, fish, gather and graze. There's a very strong and rich and powerful history between the tribes and Walla Walla.''

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