Congress passes bill to improve water quality in Columbia River

Yakama tribal members Mackie Jackson of The Dalles, left, and Anthony George of Hood River, second from left, throw out a gillnet during a May 2014 protest of the proposed coal facility on the Columbia River at the Port of Morrow in Boardman.

Congress has passed a bill authorizing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish a competitive, voluntary grant program for environmental cleanup work in the Columbia River.

The Columbia River Restoration Act was included as part of the federal Water Resources Development Act of 2016, which lawmakers approved Dec. 9.

Grants could help pay for projects that improve water quality in the basin, reduce pollution or clean up contaminated sites. Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, cheered the legislation, which was supported by a diverse group of environmental, tribal and industry groups. Co-sponsors included Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, and U.S. Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Peter DeFazio, both Oregon Democrats.

“Nobody wants to worry that the water they are drinking or fishing in or swimming in is tainted, but 8 million inhabitants of the Columbia River Basin have had their health, safety and environment endangered by toxins in the river,” Merkley said. “Now, Congress is finally doing something about it.”

The Columbia River is the largest river in the Northwest, with a drainage basin roughly the size of France. It is historically the largest salmon-producing river system in the world, with annual returns peaking at around 16 million fish.

However, the basin is the only large aquatic ecosystem in the U.S. that receives no dedicated funding to clean up and monitor toxic chemicals. The EPA has identified numerous toxins in the basin, including arsenic, lead, pesticides and flame retardants. High levels of pollutants can build up in the fatty tissue of fish and lamprey, which are consumed by people and can cause significant health problems and birth defects.

“Preserving and protecting the river is a must to ensure the river remains the clean and healthy lifeblood of our region,” Wyden said.

The program does not add any new EPA regulations. The bill was supported by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission — representing the Umatilla, Yakama, Warm Springs and Nez Perce tribes — as well as the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership (formerly chaired by Chinook Observer Editor Matt Winters) and Salmon-Safe.

“The Estuary Partnership has worked on passage of this Act for eight years, and we are thrilled that the bill passed both houses of Congress. This victory could not have happened without the numerous partners who worked to build support for the Act throughout the northwest. We are especially grateful the leadership of our northwest Congressional delegation for being champions for our river,” said Estuary Partnership Executive Director Debrah Marriott.

The Columbia River Basin is one of only two major EPA designated “large aquatic ecosystems” to receive no funding pursuant to that designation. Passage of this Act will finally bring the Columbia River Basin in line with other “large aquatic ecosystems” such as Puget Sound and the Great Lakes, reduce the presence of toxics in the basin, and protect the health of our communities.

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