Poor sanitation, safety targeted in bill to improve Columbia River tribal fishing sites

Oregon and Washington legislators are again asking for money to improve the deplorable safety and sanitation conditions at Columbia River tribal fishing sites.

They introduced a bill Tuesday that would upgrade the living conditions for Native American fishing crews while they wait for new villages to be built in the area.

The bill calls on the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to visit the sites and conduct a study about what is needed to improve them and then bring the infrastructure in line with the amount of use they get. That would include improved sewer connections, electrical grids for the people staying there and adequate water, among other needs.

Last year, The Oregonian/OregonLive visited 31 sites that the federal government built for members of four tribes to maintain their U.S. treaty rights to catch salmon from the river. Many were overcrowded, with 40 families crammed into a space meant for 20 people at one location. Almost all had bathrooms that backed up and not enough toilets and shower stalls. Trash overflowed at most sites, and people who stay jacked into the few solar panels at each spot for electricity. Other people used generators and propane heaters that occasionally caused fires. Only one had fire safety facilities.

The Oregon and Washington congressional delegations introduced a bill last year that called for cleanup money, but it died. They now have reintroduced the bill in both houses of Congress, where it will go through the committees in both before it can be voted on by the full chambers.

“It is long past time that we honor our commitment to tribal members along the Columbia River, and this legislation is another step in the right direction,” said U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, who has spearheaded the effort. “Tribal members shouldn’t have to live in unsafe or unsanitary conditions without running water or electricity.”

The problem stems from an unmet government promise to the tribes in 1938. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was supposed to build houses for the families who lived along the river when the agency built three dams, starting with Bonneville.

Those houses never came, despite a 2013 Army Corps report that acknowledged the unfulfilled obligation.

In December, former President Barack Obama signed a broad bill into law that included authorization to build new villages. One of those is already underway near The Dalles, where the Army Corps has narrowed potential village sites to three locations with the help of tribal leaders.

For almost 80 years, members of the Umatilla, Nez Perce, Yakama and Warm Springs tribes instead moved onto these fishing sites, which were built to accommodate no more than 20 people to camp temporarily during fishing season. 

Merkley was joined by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Maria Cantwell, D-Washington. In the House, Oregon Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici, both Democrats, filed the same bill.

The move has the support of tribal leaders.

“The federally owned treaty fishing sites are vital in the day-to-day lives of tribal fishing families but decades of use have stressed the sites beyond current capacity and maintenance levels,” said Leland Bill, chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

The money allocated to maintaining the sites is also running out quickly, due to the high level of use. The Bureau of Indian Affairs contracts with the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission to care for the sites. Once the money runs out, it is unclear how the sites would be cleaned or repaired.

“This legislation will help our fishers continue the practices of their ancestors, practices that have been carried on since time immemorial,” said Gary Burke, chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Board of Trustees.