Under a bill passed Dec. 16 by the U.S. House of Representatives, more than two dozen tribal fishing sites along the lower Columbia River—many of which have become permanent tribal communities—would be evaluated for safety and sanitation conditions, and funds made available to improve those conditions.

The Columbia River In-Lieu and Treaty Fishing Access Sites Improvement Act, S. 50, which previously passed the Senate, was signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 20.

It directs the Bureau of Indian Affairs to evaluate current sanitation and safety conditions of the lands and all permanent federal structures. It also authorizes $11 million from 2020 through 2025 to improve existing structures and infrastructure, including access to electricity and water when feasible.

The lands are held by the United States for the benefit of four Columbia River treaty tribes—the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Nez Perce Tribe, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.

The lands were set aside to provide the tribes access to traditional fishing sites. According to a press release from the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed the sites to be used primarily for daily fishing access with temporary camping, but "in many cases tribal members now use the areas as longer-term or even permanent residences."

The bill would address the need for adequate housing and infrastructure at these sites, designated for access due to construction of The Dalles, Bonneville and John Day dams.

"The current conditions at Columbia River fishing sites are unacceptable, unjust, and must be fixed," Merkley said in a news release. "We owe better to the tribal communities in the Northwest, and the very least we can do is uphold our commitments to the tribes and ensure basic sanitation and safety."

A report by the Congressional Budget Office said the BIA funds operations and maintenance at 28 sites along the lower Columbia River. The assessment would require a new position to oversee an improvement plan, and seven law enforcement positions to ensure safety and security of the facilities. All equipment needed to upgrade electric, sewer and water infrastructure would cost about $1 million, and preparing an improvement plan would cost another $1 million, the report says.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.