Senate Passes Bill to Improve Safety and Sanitation at Columbia River Tribal Fishing Sites

Senate Passes Bill to Improve Safety and Sanitation at Columbia River Tribal Fishing Sites

WASHINGTON, D.C. – With unanimous support, the U.S. Senate has passed the Columbia River In-Lieu and Treaty Fishing Access Sites Improvement Act. The legislation, which is sponsored by Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Patty Murray (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA), would enable 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.

The next step would be for the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the legislation, before being sent to the President for his signature.

“Today, the Senate made a strong statement that the current conditions at Columbia River fishing sites are unacceptable, unjust, and must be fixed,” said Merkley. “I’ve personally seen the shocking conditions at Lone Pine. We owe better to the Northwest’s tribal communities, and the very least we can do is ensure basic sanitation and safety. I’m going to keep pushing until this bill is at the President’s desk and signed into law.”  

“This is a positive step on our long road to properly honor our obligations  to the Columbia River Treaty Tribes,” said Murray. “It’s so important that we continue to make progress to provide safe, sanitary housing and infrastructure at these fishing access sites, so tribal members can exercise their protected rights.”

“I’m glad the Senate has taken this critical step toward correcting an injustice that tribal families have endured for decades,” Wyden said. “I’m going to keep working to get this bill signed into law to ensure tribal members can continue their traditional way of life on their own terms. It’s my hope that improving access to the Columbia River will be part of a larger effort to renew the government’s commitment to protecting tribal treaty rights.”

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. 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. 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.

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. The Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently halted work by the Army Corps on a Village Development Plan specific to The Dalles Dam. The Senators have pushed OMB to reverse its decision. In the meantime, the delay makes improving conditions at existing fishing sites all the more critical.  

The Columbia River In-Lieu and Treaty Fishing Access Sites Improvement Act  would address the urgent 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—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—as well as the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.