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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Congress votes to compensate Spokane Tribe millions for flooded Grand Coulee lands

Grand Coulee Dam is seen on Tuesday, April 17, 2018, in Coulee, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Some 70 years after their traditional homelands were flooded as part of the reservoir for the Grand Coulee Dam, Congress approved a new system of paying the Spokane Tribe for the land they lost.

The House gave final approval Monday and sent to President Donald Trump a bill that sets up a schedule of yearly payments to the tribe based on a similar system for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, who also lost land when the dam and reservoir were created.

“It’s a good day for the Spokane Tribe,” Council Chairwoman Carol Evans said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Under the agreement, the Spokane Tribe would receive $6 million a year for 10 years, and $8 million a year after that. The money would come from revenues of the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells electricity generated by Grand Coulee and other federal dams in the Northwest – not from tax money.

Trump is expected to sign the bill. Evans said former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visited the reservation in 2018 and expressed support for the compensation.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said members of the state delegation have tried to for more than a decade to get compensation for the tribe. Plans sometimes passed one chamber, but not the other. This year it passed the Senate in June and the House on Monday evening, both on voice votes.

“It was a long time to get justice,” Cantwell said. “We really did feel like it was important and we just wanted to do what was right.”

The Spokanes and the Colvilles both had reservation land in the area flooded by the reservoir behind Grand Coulee. The Spokanes, who had about a third as much land in the project area, were originally paid $4,700 for their land, compared to the $63,000 paid to the Colville tribes.

Later, although the tribes sustained similar harm from the flooding of their land, their claims against the government took different routes. The Spokanes settled a claim in 1967, but the Colvilles took theirs all the way to Congress, which in 1994 approved a lump sum payment of $53 million and annual payments of $15.2 million from BPA revenues.

Evans said that what Congress settled with the Colvilles in 1994 wasn’t the legal claim, but a moral claim for the taking of their land. That’s what the Spokanes have sought.

It was “a flawed adjudication process that left the Spokanes out,” Cantwell said.

The tribe agreed to some adjustments to get it through Congress, Cantwell said, like the smaller annual payments in the first 10 years, and no lump sum.

The yearly payments will be appropriated by the tribal council through its public budget process, Evans said.

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, whose Eastern Washington district includes the Spokane reservation, said the dam transformed the region in countless positive ways, but also fundamentally changed the tribe’s way of life.

“This is long overdue, and I’m happy we are finally moving forward to get the Spokane Tribe the compensation they deserve and right this historical wrong,” she said in a news release announcing Monday’s vote.