Pacific Northwest tribes fighting to get the U.S. government to fully compensate them for the loss of dozens of homes and traditional fishing encampments to flooding caused by hydroelectric dams rejoiced Tuesday after federal legislation to address their cause cleared a first hurdle.
A key bill that cleared the U.S. House on Monday would provide $11 million for improvements at alternative fishing sites created by the U.S. government after several massive dams built on the Columbia River caused flooding that destroyed tribal fishing sites beginning in the 1930s.
Over the years, the government has created 31 so-called “in lieu” fishing sites to compensate the tribes, but demand is high and several hundred tribal members now live year-round at camps that were intended to be seasonal, said Charles Hudson, director of government affairs with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
Conditions at some of the larger sites are unsanitary, with sewer problems, crowding and unsafe drinking water, he said.
The commission has identified 18 sites that need particular attention in both Oregon and Washington, including a site called Lone Pine near The Dalles, Oregon, and another called Cooks on the Washington side of the river.
“There are often multiple generations living on the sites,” he said. “The term ‘usual and accustomed fishing places’ is a term of law and culture and people want to live close to where their right to fish is — and for many of the people living in these areas, they are living as close as they possibly can.”
The bill also calls on the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to assess all 31 sites dedicated to enabling the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs and Yakama to carry out their federally protected right to fish the river.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, introduced the House bill after visiting Lone Pine in 2016 and seeing the conditions there first-hand. His visit was prompted by an investigation by The Oregonian newspaper that described the U.S. government’s failure to meet its promises.
“Thanks to this bill, tribal communities will see much-needed, tangible improvements that will improve their quality of life and fortify their connection to the Columbia,” Blumenauer said in a statement. “We must ensure the life-blood of their heritage is protected and respected.”
The bill now heads to the U.S. Senate, where similar legislation is pending.
A study undertaken by the Army Corps of Engineers determined that around the massive Bonneville Dam alone, tribal members had lost more than 80 homes that have not been replaced, Hudson said. The construction of major dams in John Day, Oregon, and The Dalles also caused significant losses, although those have not been quantified, he said.
An inter-tribal group is working to document how much housing was lost and come up with a proposal for adequate mitigation more than 70 years later, he added. Affordable housing close to fishing grounds is a critical need, Hudson said.
“There is a lot of historical mining of documents that has gone on, but a lot more is needed,” he said. “Quantification is a tricky one, because is a one-for-one replacement the right thing 70 years hence? Is there a survivor of that who was directly impacted by the loss of his or her home? Are there descendants who continue to be impacted?”