The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation Monday to provide the Spokane Tribe of Indians compensation for the lands taken by the United States as part of building Grand Coulee Dam in the 1930s and 1940s.
The bipartisan legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), a senior member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), having previously passed through the Senate, now heads to the president’s desk to be signed into law.
“The Spokane Tribe of Indians has waited for almost 80 years to receive just and equitable compensation for the land, life, and culture they lost when the Grand Coulee Dam was constructed. This corrects a flawed adjudication process that left the Spokane out,” Cantwell said. “Today, the Department of Interior, Republicans, and Democrats stand together to right this historic wrong, which will allow the Tribe to invest in regional economic development opportunities.”
“The construction of the Grand Coulee Dam positively transformed our region in countless ways, but it also fundamentally changed the Spokane Tribe’s way of life,” said McMorris Rodgers. “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.”
The Spokane Tribe of Indians of the Spokane Reservation Equitable Compensation Act would authorize annual payments to be made by the Bonneville Power Administration to the Spokane Tribe for past and continuing use of tribal lands for the construction and operation of the Grand Coulee Dam. The compensation does not increase taxpayer obligation and is based on compensation received by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation through the 1994 Colville Reservation Grand Coulee Dam Settlement Act.
As the largest hydroelectric facility in the United States, Grand Coulee Dam has produced electricity for towns and cities across the western United States for more than 75 years. However, since the construction of the multipurpose project, the Spokane Tribe has yet to be compensated for the significant damages to its tribal lands and livelihoods.
Under the compensation act, the Spokane Tribe would receive about $6 million a year for 10 years, and about $8 million a year after that. The money would come from BPA revenues. In a recent subcommittee hearing, BPA stated that the annual payments to the Tribe “will not result in perceptible rate impacts to its utility customers.”
Grand Coulee Dam was built in the 1930s and 1940s. The reservoir it created flooded approximately 2,500 acres of the Spokane Indian Reservation. These lands held economic, cultural, and spiritual significance for the Spokane Tribe and included historic salmon fishing sites.
Around the time of the dam’s completion, the Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946 was enacted, which gave tribal nations 5 years to file all relevant land claims against the federal government. Although the Spokane Tribe filed a claim before this deadline, which was settled in 1967, for around $4,700, lands related to the dam were not included.
More than 75 years later, the Spokane Tribe had still not received just compensation for the loss of this land.
The only other tribe impacted by the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, successfully secured a settlement with the United States in 1994 and have been receiving compensation ever since.
The bill passed this week, S. 216, will require BPA to make annual payments to the Spokane Tribe starting in 2022 as a share of revenues from hydropower sales, much in the same way the Colville Tribes are compensated. The legislation has the support of the surrounding counties and local entities.
Cantwell has worked to pass legislation to secure just compensation for the Tribe since 2003. The bill has passed the Senate three times and the House of Representatives once, but it has never passed both chambers in the same Congress before. Throughout her time in the Senate, Cantwell has repeatedly introduced the legislation and pushed for its passage.
President Trump is expected to sign the legislation.