Congress passes Columbia River Restoration Act

Congress has passed a bill authorizing the Environmental Protection Agency to establish a competitive, voluntary grant program for environmental cleanup work in the Columbia River.

The Columbia River Restoration Act was included as part of the federal Water Resources Development Act of 2016, which lawmakers approved Dec. 9.

Grants could help pay for projects that improve water quality in the basin, reduce pollution or clean up contaminated sites. Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, cheered the legislation, which was supported by a diverse group of environmental, tribal and industry groups.

“Nobody wants to worry that the water they are drinking or fishing in or swimming in is tainted, but 8 million inhabitants of the Columbia River Basin have had their health, safety and environment endangered by toxins in the river,” Merkley said. “Now, Congress is finally doing something about it.”

The Columbia River is the largest river in the Northwest, with a drainage basin roughly the size of France. It is historically the largest salmon-producing river system in the world, with annual returns peaking at around 16 million fish.

However, the basin is the only large aquatic ecosystem in the U.S. that receives no dedicated funding to clean up and monitor toxic chemicals. The EPA has identified numerous toxins in the basin, including arsenic, lead, pesticides and flame retardants. High levels of pollutants can build up in the fatty tissue of fish and lamprey, which are consumed by people and can cause significant health problems and birth defects.

“Preserving and protecting the river is a must to ensure the river remains the clean and healthy lifeblood of our region,” Wyden said.

The program does not add any new EPA regulations. The bill was supported by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission — representing the Umatilla, Yakama, Warm Springs and Nez Perce tribes — as well as the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership and Salmon-Safe.

Local tribes also praised another bill contained within the Water Resources Development that will ensure the return of the Kennewick Man, or Ancient One, for a proper burial.

“Thanks to the support of almost the entire Pacific Northwest delegation, it now looks like the Ancient One will soon return home,” said Aaron Ashley, member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Board of Trustees and chairman of the CTUIR Cultural Resources Committee. “When he does, we will both mourn and rejoice as he is finally laid to rest with our ancestors. After a very long time, this is a hopeful moment for our people.”

Remains of the Kennewick Man were discovered in 1996 on federal land near the Columbia River. In 2015, new genetic evidence determined the remains were closer to modern American Indians than any other population, according to a report by the Associated Press.

The Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce and Colville tribes, along with the Wanapum Band, will lay the Ancient One to rest at an undisclosed location. The remains must first be transferred from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, which is handling repatriation.