Trump Signs Law to Upgrade Living Conditions
by Molly Harbarger
Eighteen of the 31 tribal fishing sites along the Columbia River have an urgent need for upgrades. Some currently don't have water safe enough for drinking.
And after three years of debating, the federal government is now authorized to finally provide much-needed maintenance and sanitation services at 31 tribal fishing sites along the Columbia River.
On Dec. 20, President Donald Trump signed the first law bearing the name of the Columbia River tribal fishing sites where hundreds of Northwest tribal members live at least six months out of the year. The law makes it possible to allocate money to fix up the sites, which have fallen into squalid conditions because the federal government underestimated how many people would use them.
The issue has gotten national, bipartisan attention since The Oregonian/OregonLive reported on conditions at the sites.
It has been spearheaded by Oregon lawmakers, but New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, a Democrat and one of the first two Native American women to be elected to Congress, successfully called for the bill to be voted on without debate in the House.
The 31 sites were created for members of the Umatilla, Nez Perce, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes after the federal government flooded their traditional fishing sites and villages by building three dams, starting with Bonneville in Cascade Locks. Nearly all fell into disrepair after a $6.3 million pot of money allocated for their maintenance for the next 50 years was nearly depleted in less than two decades due to a high volume of use and inadequate facilities.
At the most used site, Lone Pine, at least 35 families live year-round. They share a single restroom with four shower stalls and four toilets, which at the time of an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive, had no doors. The toilets occasionally back up onto the floor of the bathroom, sending the smell of waste wafting through the camp. With so many families living there, the sanitation truck almost never arrives soon enough.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was supposed to replace the housing lost when the Bonneville, Dalles and John Day dams were built. That never happened. The federal government also underestimated how many people would use the sites because the dams depleted salmon runs so drastically that officials assumed that tribal members would largely give up fishing.
However, members of the four tribes have fished the river for economic, social and religious reasons from time immemorial. When the promised houses were never built after the dams were constructed, tribal members moved on to the fishing sites to maintain that way of life.
Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, both Oregon Democrats, visited Lone Pine in 2016 after an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive found that the federal government had ignored its promises to the four tribes that live along the river for 80 years.
That year, former President Barack Obama signed a law that directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to replace the flooded housing. That work was temporarily stopped by the Trump administration but now continues.
Getting money to fix up the existing sites for people who live there and use them now has been a longer journey.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs was put in charge of maintenance at the fishing sites after they were built. The agency didn't follow through and so the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission currently maintains and operates the fishing sites.
Even with weekly visits from tribal maintenance and cleaning crews, the sites were never meant to accommodate so many people living there for so long.
Charles Hudson, intergovernmental affairs director for the fish commission, said that the tribal agency has already started to inventory needed upgrades and repairs. Many sites need adequate sewage septic systems, new wells for drinking water, electrical lines and more.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs is in charge of assessing the sites on its own to create a list of needed repairs. The law includes an estimate that $11 million over five years is needed, but that could change once the assessments are done.
Hudson is confident that the funding will come through.
"I think that's a signal from Congress that they know these safety and sanitation issues will cost money to remedy," Hudson said.
Merkley said he plants to use his position on the Senate appropriations committee to allocate funding to make improvements. He has the backing of a bipartisan coalition of Oregon and Washington lawmakers and now appears to have buy-in from the White House.
"These improvements are an urgent first step that we must take while we work towards the longer-term goal of replacing housing and communities that were destroyed by the dam creation process," Merkley said in a statement.
"I've seen firsthand that this unacceptable reality is nothing short of a crisis."
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