State, federal and tribal leaders pledged support Thursday for restoring Columbia River watersheds through programs that reduce toxic compounds in the water.
The nation’s fourth-largest river basin contains mercury, PCBs, DDT and other compounds at levels that pose health risks for people and the environment, officials said.
More than 800 water bodies in the Columbia basin are impaired from toxins, which can linger for decades. The pesticide DDT was banned in 1972, for instance, but still washes into the river from farm fields.
“This is one big basin,” said Phil Cernera, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s lake management director. “The water that feeds the Coeur d’Alene Tribe also feeds the lower Columbia River. … We’re all very much intertwined in this process.”
The five-year cleanup plan was announced Thursday at a news conference on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Eastern Oregon. Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the states of Washington and Oregon and several tribes attended.
The cleanup plan outlines 61 actions for reducing toxins in the water, including increased monitoring and educational outreach. Some of the work can be done through existing programs, officials said. The states are also working with congressional leaders to request $33 million annually in additional federal money for the effort, similar to federal appropriations that helped clean up the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay.
Tribes have a particular stake in the effort. American Indians tend to consume more fish than the public at large, which puts them at greater risk of exposure to toxins.
Kathryn Brigham, secretary of the Confederated Umatilla Tribes, said she comes from a long fishing tradition. Through treaties with the U.S. government, the tribes retained rights to fish for salmon and lamprey on the Columbia and its tributaries. But toxins in the fish limit the tribes’ ability to exercise those rights, Brigham said.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, who directs the nonprofit Columbia Riverkeeper program. “It’s a long-term plan of restoring these basic river rights: The right to go down to the river with your family and to catch a fish and eat it; the right to swim in the river; and for the tribes, the treaty rights.”
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