Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle

The federal government is giving $1.8 million to Oregon to tackle toxic waste that is sickening fish in the Columbia River.

The grant was announced Wednesday by Environmental Protection Agency officials as well as state, local and tribal leaders in Portland along the banks of the river. The money will go to environmentalists, researchers and the cities of Gresham and Vancouver, Washington.

At the event, Michael Regan, the EPA administrator, called the river an “irreplaceable environmental asset” but that “toxic contaminants in the basin pose a serious risk.”

He was joined by the agency’s new regional director, Casey Sixkiller; Oregon’s U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats; Gov. Kate Brown; as well as leaders from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.

“The need is huge. The time is now. Our fish and rivers can’t wait,” said Kathleen George, chair of the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission and a Grand Ronde tribal council member. “We have built and fed our communities on the riches of our rivers. We have taken but very rarely do we give back.”

The Columbia River Basin covers nearly 260,000 square miles and spans 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.

The federal government has dedicated $79 million to restoring the health of the Columbia River Basin over the next five years. The money comes from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, which Congress passed in November 2021. This year, EPA is awarding $7 million to the seven states, including the $1.8 million for Oregon.

How the money will be spent

For some, the money will go towards research on the sources of toxic waste in the basin, such as mercury from fishing and recreation, and pesticides from lawns, landscaping and agriculture. It will also be used for programs to educate farmers, industries and residents about preventing and reducing the pollution.

The EPA awarded the money to a mix of recipients:

  • The Portland-based, nonprofit Salmon-Safe, which certifies products that adhere to environmental guidelines benefitting the river and its salmon, will get $342,000 to expand a program for producers in the Columbia Basin. More farmers, vintners and other agricultural land owners will be able to earn the Salmon-Safe label by reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides harmful to fish in the Columbia River and its tributaries as well as demonstrating that they are improving soil health, riparian areas, water efficiency and enhancing habitat. The grant will allow the group to expand its certification to producers outside Oregon’s portion of the Columbia Basin. It will also allow Salmon-Safe to introduce a similar Trout-Safe initiative in Western Montana and parts of Wyoming along the Snake River, a major tributary to the Columbia River and the second most endangered river in the U.S., according to the environmental group American Rivers.
  • The city of Gresham will receive nearly $350,000 to educate residents and businesses about ways to reduce residential and commercial pesticides that end up in the Columbia River. It plans to teach homeowners how to care for lawns without using pesticides and encouraging small landscaping businesses and independent landscapers not to use pesticides.
  • The nonprofit Columbia Riverkeeper will get more than $125,000 to hold classes about pollution in the basin in community centers and for an estimated 1,200 students from kindergarten to the community college level.
  • The Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies will get $119,000 for studying the sources of perfluoroalkoxy alkanes or PFAS in local water systems within the basin and reducing them. PFAS are a slate of chemicals used in consumer and industrial products from non-stick pans to fire-fighting foam that have been leaching into water for decades and that break down very slowly over time. Some PFAS at even low levels have been shown to cause health issues including testicular, kidney and liver cancer.
  • Oregon State University will receive nearly $350,000 to monitor mercury levels in the  waters of the Willamette River Valley. The Willamette River is a major tributary to the Columbia River. University scientists will team up with local communities to study trends in mercury contamination, identify sources of pollution and determine safer fishing practices. They will also work with community scientists to sample dragonfly larvae for mercury, which have proven to be good indicators of the presence of mercury pollution.
  • Vancouver will get nearly $250,000 to collect water quality data at 10 locations along the Columbia Slough for a year and a half. The slough is a 25-square-mile watershed between downtown Vancouver and Camas, Washington. The data will help the city determine whether its stormwater management practices are effective at reducing pollution from runoff that ends up in the Columbia River.

The EPA will fund an additional 18 projects tackling toxic waste in the Columbia River Basin this fall and will collect proposals for projects for future rounds of funding.