More money for safety, sanitation needed at Columbia River tribal sites, says federal bill

A new bill in the U.S. Senate would create cleaner, safer fishing sites for tribal fishing crews on the Columbia River.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, carved out space in the U.S. Department of Interior appropriations bill to fund more sanitation and law enforcement services for the 31 fishing camps in Oregon and Washington where members of the Warm Spring, Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes live permanently and seasonally while fishing for salmon.

The Oregonian/OregonLive reported in Marchthat these sites are overcrowded and unsuited for permanent occupation. However, many tribal fishing crews live on them because the river is where their ancestors lived for at least 9,000 years. The overuse has caused the few bathrooms at sites to malfunction, trash piles up and there is little or no water set aside for drinking or electricity for home use.

“The language included in today’s appropriations bill will help keep the tribal fishing sites along the Columbia River clean and safe,” Merkley said.  “And this is another step in the process of righting past wrongs and gaining momentum to make a difference in tribal communities along the Columbia River.”

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission handles maintenance and operation functions at the site. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs — part of the Department of Interior — is ultimately the owner of the sites, though. The agency is supposed to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make sure tribal members can access the river.

“We very much appreciate Sen. Merkley’s interior appropriations bill language to address the tribal housing crisis along the Columbia River and look forward the passage of this critically important appropriation bill with this language included,” said fish commission director Paul Lumley.

The Army Corps was also supposed to provide housing for the Native Americans displaced when the three Columbia River dams were built, starting in the 1930s. That never happened.

Merkley and federal politicians from Washington and Oregon have introduced three other bills that would direct federal agencies to build more than 50 houses in the next few years. Those bills are currently stalled in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Here is the language included in the Interior Department’s appropriations bill:

“The Committee is concerned that the Bureau’s budget does not adequately fund operating costs for treaty fishing sites in the Columbia River Gorge that were set aside by Congress as part of Title IV of Public Law 100-581 and Public Law 79–14 to allow tribes access to fishing locations in lieu of traditional fishing grounds that were compromised by dams.   The Bureau is directed to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and affected tribes and provide a report to the Committees on Appropriations within 60 days of enactment of this Act that details the amounts needed to fully fund operating and law enforcement needs at such sites.  The Bureau is also urged to incorporate the needs identified by the requested report in future budget requests.”