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News / Northwest

Projects to restore Columbia River Basin health in Oregon get $31 million

Seven projects will get millions in federal aid through Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley’s Columbia River Restoration Program

By ALEX BAUMHARDT, Oregon Capital Chronicle
Published: November 21, 2023, 8:16am

Oregon tribes, state agencies, farmers and ranchers are getting more than $31 million from the federal government to reduce toxic pollution in the Columbia River and its tributaries.

It’s the last of $79 million that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has dedicated to improving the health of the Columbia River Basin since 2021, under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Oregon’s U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, announced the projects that would receive funding Thursday, on the two-year anniversary of the law’s passage.

“Our rivers and waterways are the lifeblood of our communities. If they are dirty and polluted, our homes, schools, and businesses are dirty and polluted,” Merkley said in a news release.

The Columbia River Basin covers nearly 260,000 square miles, spanning 16 federally recognized tribal nations and seven states from Oregon and Washington to Wyoming. Over decades, it’s become contaminated by toxic waste from agriculture, forestry, recreation and hydroelectric power generation, harming the health of wildlife and leaving some fish species threatened, endangered or unsafe for consumption.

Among the recipients of the $31 million are the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Each tribe will receive about $2 million to reduce pollution in Columbia River tributaries that each tribe depends on for fish. The Grand Ronde will launch a new effort to reduce pollution in the Willamette River Basin, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla will target pollution in the Umatilla, Walla Walla, Snake and John Day tributaries to the Columbia River.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality will get $6 million to reduce the amount of agricultural pesticides, mercury and PFAS, often called “forever chemicals,” in the Columbia River Basin. Thousands of human-made PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been put into consumer and industrial products such as nonstick pans and flame retardants, and the EPA is just beginning to regulate them. They do not break down or go away naturally but instead have leached into rivers and streams, contaminating water and are now in the blood of nearly everyone in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Portland-based nonprofit Salmon-Safe will get $6 million to continue growing its network of farmers, ranchers, developers and tribes along the river, who take on voluntary measures to protect water quality and quantity. In exchange, the producers earn the Salmon-Safe label, appealing to some consumers. Several Portland and Corvallis-based nonprofits collaborating with EPA will get between $4 million and $5.5 million to work on projects that can reduce stormwater runoff into the Columbia River.

Lastly, about $5.6 million will go to the Portland-based nonprofit Freshwater Trust to help farmers upgrade irrigation systems on fields to reduce fertilizer and manure runoff that is creating methylmercury pollution in the Snake River, poisoning fish that become unsafe for human consumption. The methylmercury is created when farm fertilizers get into water and, combined with warm temperatures, create algal blooms and conditions that lead to depleted oxygen levels in the water. Without the oxygen, bacteria grow and create methylmercury through digestive processes, which ends up in Snake River reservoirs each summer and fall.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.