U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), Patty Murray (D-Washington), Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) have announced that, with unanimous support, the U.S. Senate has passed the Columbia River In-Lieu and Treaty Fishing Access Sites Improvement Act.

The legislation allocates $11 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to make important safety and sanitation improvements at the tribal treaty fishing access sites along the Columbia River, which are on lands held by the United States for the benefit of the four Columbia River Treaty tribes, according to a press release from Merkley’s office.

The bill now goes to the U.S. House of Representatives for final passage, and then to the president’s desk to become law.

“The current conditions at Columbia River fishing sites are unacceptable, unjust, and must be fixed,” Merkley said. “I’ve personally seen the shocking conditions at Lone Pine” he said of an in-lieu site in The Dalles. We owe better to the  tribal communities in the Northwest, and the very least we can do is ensure basic sanitation and safety. I’m going to keep pushing until this bill is — hopefully, very soon — at the president’s desk and signed into law.”  

“I’m proud Congress has finally stepped up to the plate to do what’s right and properly honor our obligations to the Columbia River Treaty tribes,” Murray said. “This bill will help ensure tribal members have safe, sanitary housing and infrastructure at fishing access sites that are historically and culturally important to our tribal communities, and now it’s time to get this signed into law so they can exercise their protected rights.”

“Making these essential health and safety improvements at tribal fishing sites along the Columbia takes a significant step toward addressing historic injustices in the Northwest,” Wyden said.

“Members of these four Columbia River Treaty tribes have suffered from federal neglect far too long and I am committed to making sure today’s step becomes law as part of a path to meet all obligations promised to our tribal neighbors,” Wyden added.

“It’s time to fulfill our long-overdue promises to protect Tribal fishing rights and take steps to right the wrongs of the past,” Cantwell said. “I urge the House of Representatives to take this bill up quickly so we can start improving the conditions at these sites.”

Beginning in the 1930s, the construction of the three lower Columbia River dams displaced members of the four Columbia River Treaty tribes: Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Nez Perce Tribe and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. These tribes have a treaty-protected right to fish along the Columbia River in their usual and accustomed places.

The senators have been fighting to address the urgent need for adequate housing and infrastructure at tribal fishing access sites constructed by the Army Corps following construction of The Dalles, Bonneville, and John Day dams, according to the press release. The Army Corps designed the sites to be used primarily for daily, in-season fishing access and temporary camping; however, in many cases tribal members now use the areas as longer-term or even permanent residences, said the press release.

In fact, many people at these sites are living in extremely distressed, unsafe, and unsanitary conditions, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs has not committed the resources necessary to ensure the basic necessities of clean and safe living conditions at these sites, said the press release.

Simultaneously, the senators have been working to address unmet federal obligations to the four Columbia River Treaty Tribes, many of whom are living at these fishing sites, for flooding tribal communities and houses during the construction of The Dalles, Bonneville, and John Day dams, said the press release.

After the Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) halted work by the Army Corps on a Village Development Plan specific to The Dalles Dam, the senators successfully pushed OMB to reverse its decision, and last fall announced that the Army Corps allocated $1.8 million to complete The Dalles Dam Tribal Housing Village Development Plan, said the press release.

In the 2019 spending bill, Merkley included language acknowledging the Army Corps’ mission, and instructing the Corps to uphold its responsibility to tribes that were displaced by the construction of The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River, and to mitigate the impact of that displacement, said the press release.

The Columbia River In-Lieu and Treaty Fishing Access Sites Improvement Act would address the need for improved conditions by:

Calling on the bureau of Indian Affairs to conduct a much-needed assessment of current safety and sanitation conditions at the sites, in coordination with the affected Columbia River Treaty Tribes; and

Authorizing the bureau to work on improving sanitation and safety conditions in several key areas such as structural improvements (restrooms, washrooms, and other buildings); safety improvements (wells and infrastructure to address fire concerns, and more); electrical infrastructure to ensure safe electrical hookups; and basic sewer and septic infrastructure.

The legislation is supported by the four Columbia River Treaty tribes —  as well as the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

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