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Group seeks to recover Celilo Falls

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ - Sean Cruz, Treothe Bullock and Aurolyn Stwyer stand where Celilo Falls used to be before The Dalles Dam was completed in 1957.Though few Oregonians remember it, 57 years ago there was a massive waterfall on the Columbia River, 12 miles east of The Dalles. For 15,000 years, Celilo Falls was the focus of the local economy, culture and religion, making it the longest continuously inhabited place on the continent.

“It was like the Wall Street of the Northwest,” says Wyam tribal elder Karen Whitford. “Our culture, our faith, everything comes from that river.”

By peak volume, Celilo Falls was the largest waterfall in North America and the sixth-largest in the world.

On March 10, 1957, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed The Dalles Dam. The Wyam tribe, dressed in full regalia, watched in despair as their beloved falls were silenced and their village submerged by the rising water.

Fifty years later, the Oregon Senate passed resolutions mourning the loss of the falls and redoubling efforts to fulfill still-unmet promises of housing for the displaced villagers.

Sean Aaron Cruz was there that day as the chief of staff for state Sen. Avel Gordly, D-Portland, who led Senate discussions on the resolutions.

“I felt the moment of silence didn’t go far enough,” Cruz says.

So Cruz has gone further. Much further.

Two years ago he founded The Friends of Celilo Falls, and has recruited a board of directors of eight people, with more to come. The nonprofit group has put forth a plan to put Celilo Falls back on the map as one of the great wonders and historical treasures of the world, with archaeological sites, new hotels and a village that would go right up to the falls again.

“It would be a huge piece of real estate that we would be recovering,” Cruz says, explaining his vision to use federal funds to move sections of Interstate 84 and the two railway lines that currently abut Celilo Lake through Maryhill, Wash.

Though such a project could cost in the billions of dollars, Cruz argues that taxpayers would recover much of the money spent on salmon restoration and barge infrastructure, as well as create a sustainable tourism-based economy in a struggling area.

“Two million people a year come to see Multnomah Falls, and all of them would want to see Celilo,” Cruz says, “How much money do you think 2 million visitors spend?”

What’s to blame?

by: SUBMITED - Celilo Falls“Those that are aware of Celilo think that the dam has to come down before the falls can come back.” Cruz says. “It’s not about hydropower, it’s about barging, which has never been sustainable in the history of the Columbia River.”

The Friends of Celilo Falls worry the situation will only get more irreversible if Ambre Energy completes its impending plan to site the $643 million Millennium Bulk Terminal in Cowlitz County for barging Montana and Wyoming coal and cement products down the Columbia River to Asia.

However, Matt Rabe, chief of public affairs at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, says revealing the falls would have a negative impact on hydropower. If the water level there was lowered 30 feet — the minimum needed to expose the falls — it would take upriver John Day Dam’s powerhouse offline, he says.

“There needs to be enough water below the powerhouse to keep the draft tubes and turbines underwater,” Rabe says, also arguing that the shorelines supporting Interstate 84 and Washington State Route 14 would be compromised without the reservoir.

“Could it be done? Yes. Should it be done? Probably not,” he says.

Rabe adds that The Dalles Dam and the Columbia River are under federal jurisdiction, meaning Congress would need to be persuaded to significantly alter the way they are being managed.

“Every few years, someone wants to resurrect Celilo Falls, and it hasn’t gotten any legs to this point,” Rabe says. “It’s an interesting concept, but it’s not something we’re prepared to look at without direction from higher authorities.”

Tribal elders against idea

Though The Friends of Celilo Falls repeatedly states that it does not represent the Columbia River Treaty Tribes, nor the Wyam people, part of its plan is to give back the falls and surrounding sites to the Native people for sustainable stewardship of their ancestral lands.

Whitford, a Wyam tribal elder, says they have not heard of the plan and are not supportive.

“We consider the falls gone, and we rather it be left alone,” she says. “To bring that back would be like to wake up somebody out of the dead. It would be heartbreaking for people.”

Whitford says her tribe has closed many of its ceremonies to the public, since they are not interested in tourism or outside money distorting their culture. If tourism were to come to Celilo Village, she says, “it’s got to be conservative, environmental.”

“Enough is enough,” Whitford says. “In order to do something, you need to come to Celilo and meet the people, and the people will tell you.”