The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has promised just over $3 million to plan for new housing at The Dalles Dam -- a first step in making good on a 60-year-old promise.
The four Columbia River tribes that fish and live along the river are helping decide where the houses should go and what they would look like in a process similar to how modern-day Celilo Village began.
Construction could start in 2020, at the earliest.
Celilo, along Interstate 84, is the only place where the federal government replaced houses for the ones lost when it built The Dalles Dam and wiped out Celilo Falls and the settlement there. After five decades and several iterations of substandard housing, the Army Corps eventually worked with tribal members who lived at Celilo and tribal leadership to build 15 houses that fit a fishing lifestyle.
Members of the Pacific Northwest's congressional delegation want to do the same for at least 85 other families who were living on the river between Boneville and The Dalles dams. They pushed the Army Corps last year to set aside money for the work.
Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy agreed to set aside $1.56 million and $1.49 million in two chunks throughout the year, but the second allocation is tentative.
The federal government is currently funded through a "continuing resolution," which means agencies get the same money as the year before in lieu of a new approved budget. That runs out April 28.
The second half of the money must be approved by whoever assumes Darcy's position under President Donald Trump.
Congress also could decide to pass an omnibus bill instead of another continuing resolution, which would mean the work at The Dalles would need to be included as a line-item in that bill.
Even with the uncertainty, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, said this represents progress.
"We are beginning to right this historic wrong for tribal members," Merkley said. "Leaving our tribes displaced, without relocation assistance, was simply wrong."
Merkley has championed the issue in the Senate, pushing several bills to try to build houses and improve conditions at 31 fishing sites where tribal members live in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.
When Bonneville Dam was built 80 years ago, it flooded out members of the Warm Springs, Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes. The Dalles and John Day dams did the same, wiping out areas that were economically, culturally and spiritually important to Native American life.
The Army Corps built 31 fishing sites, which range from having a few water hookups and shower stalls to no amenities at all. They were built for camping while fishing crews caught salmon, but eventually became overburdened as people chose to live there to exercise their treaty fishing rights.
In 2013, the Portland district of the Army Corps wrote a report that said the agency was supposed to also provide housing for the displaced people. That never happened.
Last year, The Oregonian/OregonLive visited all the sites and detailed the conditions. Merkley and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, visited afterward and promised tribal leaders they would made headway on addressing the problem that year.
"It's about time that the federal government put some much-needed funding towards fulfilling its obligations to the Lower Columbia River tribes," Blumenauer said. "I'm encouraged that those impacted by The Dalles Dam will be able to move forward, but this is only a drop in the bucket for what is needed. I urge the federal government to move quickly to remedy this situation."
U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Patty Murray, D-Washington, also applauded the action in a statement.
Former President Barack Obama signed a law in December that included authorization for housing at Bonneville Dam and a study of housing obligation at John Day Dam. Merkley's office said money for those projects is expected to be included in the fiscal 2018 Army Corps budget.
The tribes did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
-- Molly Harbarger
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