The Dalles — A new nonprofit group has lofty goals: to permanently lower the Columbia River, restoring Celilo Falls and its native fishery; and reconnecting Celilo Village to the river by rerouting the nearby rail lines and freeway to Washington.
Sean Cruz is the spokesman for Friends of Celilo Falls, and he’s pitched his vision to the Columbia River Gorge Commission.
Cruz, of Portland, was once a legislative staffer in Salem, and was on the Senate floor when a resolution was passed in 2007, mourning the flooding of Celilo Falls in 1956 as a consequence of the construction of The Dalles Dam.
“I was there when we heard the tribes tell the story of the falls and how devastating this was to the people,” he said. “The deep trauma to the native people that flooding the falls caused, that continues to this day.
“Prior to 1850, both banks of the Columbia River were lined with Indian villages, the entire length of the river. But today, there’s only one Indian village left, only one. And that’s how strong the connection to Celilo Falls is for the native people,” he said.
Now the village is cut off from the river by two rail lines and Interstate 84.
Cruz said commenters on the Senate floor that day said, “To flood Celilo Falls today, if the falls had not already been flooded, it would’ve been unthinkable. That was the word that was used. Unthinkable. If the falls were there today, who would think about flooding them? Just to get barges past them. Are you joking?”
Barging interests countered that the permanent lowering of the river was unthinkable.
Cruz said, “A lot of people believe that Celilo Falls are gone forever, lost forever, or the only way the falls can come back is to take down the dam at The Dalles, but that’s not true.”
While barging as a mode of transportation is more economical than rail or truck, Cruz argued that the public infrastructure required for barging nullifies that efficiency.
“Barging on the Columbia has never been an economically feasible way of moving freight,” he said. “It has always required massive public subsidies. Massive. As a matter of fact, we’re into the billions of dollars of subsidies now.”
Just a few years ago, three lock gates on regional river systems were replaced at a cost of $50 million, he said. “About the only business that goes through those lock gates is the average of three barge tows a day,” Cruz said. “So it’s a direct benefit to a very small group of shippers.”
Meanwhile, the slack water needed for barging negatively impacts fish, he said, and the public will pay $1.675 billion for salmon recovery efforts over the next decade.
“There’s no other place in the world like it, like Celilo Falls, so why is it 40 feet underwater?” he said.
His group envisions a walking trail the length of the Columbia River; excursion boats that trawl multiple stops from Portland on upriver; and an electric passenger excursion train that takes passengers from new motels on the plateau beyond Maryhill to a viewing point of the falls at Wishram, then on into The Dalles.
A section of I-84 and the rail lines that now go past Celilo Village, east of The Dalles, would be rerouted into Washington at The Dalles, and then come back into Oregon about 15 miles east — past Biggs and Maryhill, Cruz envisions.
His organization plans to create computerized 3-D models of their vision. He said millions of people worldwide would share his interest in revealing Celilo Falls. It is just a matter of educating them and harnessing their voice.
He said information is already available on the Internet about Celilo Falls, such as a YouTube video by the Army Corps of Engineers showing Celilo Falls in its glory, before it was inundated over the course of six hours when the dam became operational.
“We want to educate people that this has to be protected, and it has to be protected forever,” he said.
He likened the effort to the decision made in the 1960s by Oregon’s then-governor to make Oregon’s beaches publicly accessible. Restoring Celilo Falls is “more complicated,” he said, “but again, we’re looking at a resource like Oregon beaches that are just as valuable in terms of geology. Lay on top of that cultural and archaeological values.”
As for funding relocation of the highway and rail lines, Cruz said “there’s prioritized federal funding for multimodal bridges and highways in rural areas.”
The restored falls would become a working fishery once again, and Cruz wants them to come under “the permanent stewardship of the Columbia River treaty tribes.”
But, unlike before, no non-tribal members would be allowed on the fishing grounds.
Rather, they would be able to see the falls from Wishram, which is directly across the river from the submerged falls, or from the still-intact railroad bridge just 400 yards or so upriver from the falls, or perhaps from a new viewing area created on Fifteenmile Road.
He said the public would be kept away from the falls because they’re so dangerous.
When the falls were exposed, “the water comes past these fishers like it’s blasted out of a cannon. That’s how dangerous it is. Every year people drowned. All the more reason why controlling public access is vital,” he said.
A lowered river would expose archaeological sites, which would require fencing off and monitoring. Cruz said that work would create significant ongoing employment opportunities.
“That’s a vast archaeological area out there, both sides of the river, everything east of The Dalles Dam, out past Maryhill. The people lived there for thousands of years. They didn’t live in just one place. There’s burial sites, sacred sites.”