Created by Gareth Baldrica-Franklin, Institute for Water and Watersheds, Oregon State University
Tributaries: Butter Creek, Wildhorse Creek, McKay Creek, Birch Creek
Area: 2,450 square miles
Average Discharge: 494 cubic feet/second
Mouth: Columbia River
Much of the population is concentrated in the irrigated areas towards the mouth of the Umatilla River. Upstream, the Umatilla Indian Reservation houses nearly 3,000 people.
In 1855, the Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla peoples entered in treaty with the United States, ceding their native lands and relocating to a reservation. The treaty provided protections for hunting and fishing, both within the reservation and at "usual and accustomed" places outside the reservation.
Umatilla County was formed by the territorial government in 1862, anchored around the Euro-American towns of Pendleton and Hermiston.
As population increased throughout the end of 19th century, demands for irrigation grew along the lower Umatilla.
In 1905, the United States Bureau of Reclamation began the Umatilla Basin Project, constructing dams, canals, and reservoirs throughout the basin.
The main feature of the project was Cold Springs Reservoir, which was created from diversions directly from the Umatilla River.
Upstream, the Mckay reservoir was created in the 1920s to provide more water to the irrigators of the lower Umatilla.
An irrigation-based economy emerged in the Basin. However, for several months of the year, irrigation demands would completely dry the Umatilla River.
The drying river, combined with blockages created by the dams, severely depleted salmon runs.
Salmon are of primary importance to the culture and economy of the Umatilla Reservation. Additionally, the 1855 treaty gave the tribes a right to the water necessary to fulfill their purposes.
The federal government effectively prioritized the water rights of the irrigation economy of the lower Umatilla over the already established needs of the reservation.
The conflict between irrigators and the tribes grew increasingly heated. In the 1970s, Senator Mark O. Hatfield held a hearing in Pendleton regarding the Umatilla conflict. It was an important step in the establishment of dialogue between the two groups.
Both quickly realized that their blame should be directed at the federal government, which had promised both parties sufficient water.
The Tribes of the Umatilla pushed for an out-of-court solution, not wanting to waste financial resources on expensive litigation, as had happened in other basins throughout the west. In 1988, after a decade of negotiations, an agreement was finally reached.
A series of pumps, pipelines and canals, would transfer river directly from the Columbia to Cold Springs Reservoir and the irrigation districts to the south. Additionally, fish ladders were improved or installed at five dams along the river.
The diversions from the Columbia offset the water need at McKay reservoir, freeing water for the Umatilla. While the river still dries in certain months, the agreement ensures that it flows during major fish runs.
The Umatilla Project was completed in 1996. Senator Hatfield noted that the Umatilla offers an example of how to resolve water conflicts through grassroots negotiation.
After its completion, Chinook and other salmon returned to the Umatilla, spawning for the first time in 70 years. In most years since, there have been enough fish for native and non-native populations.
But more work can be done. There are currently efforts to remove some of the smaller dams along the Umatilla, namely, Dillon Dam.