Columbia River

Columbia River
Enlarge picture
Bonneville Dam, in the Columbia River Gorge
Bonneville Dam, in the Columbia River Gorge
Countries |Canada,United States
States |Washington,Oregon
Provinces |British Columbia
Major cities |Revelstoke, BC,Tri-Cities, WA,Portland, OR,Vancouver, WA
Length |1,243 mi (2000 km) [1]
Watershed258,000 mi (668217 km)
Discharge atmouth
 - average265,000 ft/s (7504 m/s) [2]
 - maximum1,240,000 ft/s (35113 m/s)
 - minimum12,100 ft/s (343 m/s)
Source |Columbia Lake
 - locationBritish Columbia,Canada
 - coordinates [3]
 - elevation2,650 ft (808 m) [3]
MouthPacific Ocean
 - coordinates [4]
 - elevationft (0 m)
Major tributaries
 - leftKootenay River,Pend Oreille River ,Spokane River,Snake River,Deschutes River,Willamette River
 - rightOkanogan River,Yakima River,Cowlitz River
path of the Columbia River
The Columbia River is a river in the Pacific Northwest region of North America. It stretches from the Canadian province of British Columbia, through the U.S. state of Washington, and forms much of the border between Washington and Oregon before emptying into the Pacific Ocean.

The Columbia is the largest river (measured by volume) flowing into the Pacific from the Western Hemisphere, and is the fourth-largest in North America, behind the Mississippi, St. Lawrence, and Mackenzie Rivers. (In rare years, the river’s flow may actually exceed that of the Mississippi.) The Columbia's average annual flow is about 265,000 ft³/s (7,500 m³/s). It flows 1,243 miles (2,000 km) from its headwaters to the Pacific, draining 258,000 square miles (668,217 km²), of which about 15% is in Canada.

The river's heavy flow, and its large elevation drop over a relatively short distance, give it tremendous potential for hydroelectricity generation. It is the largest hydroelectric power producing river in North America, with 14 hydroelectric dams in the United States and Canada.

The Columbia and its tributaries are home to numerous fish, including Steelhead, Coho and Chinook salmon, which migrate up the rivers to spawn, and sturgeon. These fish have been a vital part of the river's ecology and a have helped sustain human inhabitation for thousands of years.

The taming of the river for human use, and the resulting industrial waste, have come into conflict with ecological conservation at numerous times since Americans and Europeans began to settle the area in the 18th century. This "harnessing," as it was commonly described in the popular culture of the early 20th century, included dredging for navigation by larger ships, nuclear power generation and nuclear weapons research and production, and the construction of dams for power generation, irrigation, navigation, and flood control.

The river was named after Captain Robert Gray’s ship Columbia Rediviva, the first ship from the United States or a European country documented to have traveled up the river.[5]

Geography

Columbia Lake—elevation 2,650 ft (808 meters)—forms the Columbia’s headwaters in the Canadian Rockies of southern British Columbia. For its first 200 miles (320 km) the Columbia flows northwest, through Windermere Lake and the town of Invermere, then northwest to Golden and into Kinbasket Lake. The river then turns sharply south (at the “Big Bend”), passing through Revelstoke Lake and the Arrow Lakes to the BC–Washington border.

The Pend Oreille River joins the Columbia in British Columbia, just north of the border.

The Columbia then winds through the channeled scablands of eastern Washington, flowing to the southwest and then changing to a south and southeasterly direction near the confluence of the Wenatchee River in central Washington. The river flows past The Gorge Amphitheatre—a prominent concert venue in the Northwest—and then past the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The Snake River joins the Columbia in the Tri-Cities area.

Hanford Reach, a section of the Columbia between Priest Rapids Dam and the Tri-Cities, is the only American stretch of the river that is free-flowing, unimpeded by dams, and not a tidal estuary.

The Columbia makes a sharp bend to the west at the Washington-Oregon border. The river defines that border for the final 300 miles (480 km) of its journey.

The river is the only one to pass through the Cascade Mountains, which it does between The Dalles, Oregon and Portland, forming the Columbia River Gorge. The gorge is known for strong and steady winds, scenic beauty, and as an important transportation link.

The river continues west, bending sharply to the north-northwest between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington, at the river's confluence with the Willamette River. Here the river slows considerably, dropping sediment that might otherwise form a river delta.

The Columbia empties into the Pacific Ocean just past Astoria, Oregon over the Columbia Bar, a shifting sandbar which makes the river's mouth one of the most hazardous stretches of water to navigate in the world.[6]

Major tributaries

Enlarge picture
Crown Point Vista House, with Beacon Rock and Hamilton Mountain visible in the background


Enlarge picture
Columbia River watershed, showing major dams and tributaries
Tributary Avg. discharge
tributaries
of the Columbia
Snake River56,900 ft3/sec (1611 m3/sec)
Willamette River35,660 (1010)
Kootenay River (Kootenai)30,650 (867)
Pend Oreille River27,820 (788)
Cowlitz River9,200 (261)
Spokane River6,700 (190)
Deschutes River6,000 (170)
Lewis River4,800 (136)
Yakima River3,540 (100)
Wenatchee River3,220 (91)
Okanogan River3,050 (86)
Kettle River2,930 (83)
Sandy River2,260 (64)

Drainage

With an average annual flow of about 265,000 ft³/s (7,500 m³/s), the Columbia is the largest river by volume flowing into the Pacific from the Western Hemisphere, and is the fourth-largest in North America. The Columbia's highest recorded flow was 1,240,000 ft³/s (35,113 m³/s), on June 6, 1894. The river flows 1,243 miles (2,000 km) from its headwaters to the Pacific, draining an area of about 258,000 square miles (668,217 km²).

Missoula Floods

Main article: Missoula Floods
The Columbia River and its drainage basin experienced some of the world’s greatest known floods toward the end of the last ice age. The periodic rupturing of ice dams at Glacial Lake Missoula resulted in discharge rates ten times the combined flow of all the rivers of the world, as many as forty times over a thousand-year period.[7]

Water levels during the Missoula Floods have been estimated at 1,250 feet (381 m) at the Wallula Gap, 830 feet (253 m) at Bonneville Dam, and 400 feet (122 m) over current day Portland, Oregon.[8]

The floods' periodic inundation of the lower Columbia River Plateau deposited rich lake sediments, establishing the fertility that supports extensive agriculture in the modern era; they were also responsible for many unusual geological features, such as the channeled scablands of eastern Washington.

Indigenous peoples

Humans have inhabited the Columbia River Basin for as long as 10,000 years. In the 1990s, remains of a man (dubbed Kennewick Man) were found near Kennewick, Washington, and were determined to date from the 8th millenium BC. This discovery rekindled debate in the scientific community over the origins of human habitation in North America, and also sparked a protracted controversy over whether the scientific or Native American community was entitled to possess and/or study the remains.[9]

Celilo Falls was an important economic and cultural hub for as many as 10,000 years; traders convened from all over western North America to trade, drawn largely by the abundant salmon. The installation of The Dalles Dam in the mid-20th century displaced a vibrant community of Native Americans; the Army Corps of Engineers' predictions of vibrant industry and plentiful work along the river did not come to pass.[10][11]

Several Indian tribes have a historical and continuing presence on the Columbia. The Sinixt or Lakes people live on the Canadian portion; the Colville, Spokane, Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs tribes live along the American stretch. In the upper Snake River and Salmon River basin the Shoshone Bannock Tribes are present. In the Lower Columbia River, the Cowlitz and Chinook tribes, which are not federally recognized, are present. The Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Warm Springs Tribes all have treaty fishing rights along the Columbia and its tributaries.

Modern history

Enlarge picture
Cascade on the Columbia River
In 1775, Bruno de Heceta became the first European to sight the mouth of the Columbia River, naming it either Bahía de la Asunción, or the San Rogue River. On May 11 1792, Captain Robert Gray managed to sail into the Columbia River, becoming the first explorer to enter it. Gray had traveled to the Pacific Northwest to trade for furs in a privately owned vessel named Columbia Rediviva; he named the river after the ship. Gray spent nine days trading near the mouth of the Columbia, then left without having gone beyond 13 miles upstream. George Vancouver, commander of the British naval expedition that was exploring the region at the same time, soon learned that Gray claimed to have found a navigable river, and went to investigate for himself. In October 1792, Vancouver sent Lieutenant William Robert Broughton, his second-in-command, up the river. Broughton sailed up for some miles, then continued in small boats. He got as far as the Columbia River Gorge, about 100 miles upstream, sighting and naming Mount Hood. He also formally claimed the river, its watershed and the nearby coast for Britain. Gray's discovery of the Columbia was used by the United States to support their claim to the Oregon Country, which was also claimed by Russia, Great Britain, Spain and other nations.[12]

French explorers called the Columbia River Ouragan (translation: "hurricane"), which is one of several plausible origins of the name "Oregon".

Lewis and Clark’s overland expedition explored the vast, unmapped lands west of the Missouri River. They reached the Columbia River, exploring as far upstream as Bateman Island, near present-day Tri-Cities, Washington. On the last stretch of their 1805 expedition they traveled down the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean.

David Thompson of the North West Company spent the winter of 1807–08 at Kootenae House near the source of the Columbia at present day Invermere, British Columbia. In 1811 he traveled down the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, becoming the first European-American to travel the entire length of the river.

In 1825, on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company, Dr. John McLoughlin established Fort Vancouver (currently Vancouver, Washington) on the banks of the Columbia as a fur trading headquarters in the region. The fort was by far the largest European settlement in the northwest of the time. Every year ships would come from London (via the Pacific) to drop off supplies and trade goods in exchange for the furs. For many settlers the fort became the last stop on the Oregon Trail to buy supplies and land before starting their homestead. Because of its access to the Columbia river, Fort Vancouver’s influence reached from Alaska to California and from the Rocky Mountains to the Hawaiian Islands.

By the turn of the 20th century, the difficulty of navigating the Columbia was seen as an impediment to the economic development of the Inland Empire region east of the Cascades.[13] The dredging and dam building that followed would permanently alter the river, disrupting its natural flow but also providing electricity, irrigation, navigability and other benefits to the region.

Dredging

Enlarge picture
The Essayons, an Army Corps of Engineers dredge currently in use on the Columbia[14]
In 1891 the Columbia was dredged, deepening the shipping channel to Portland/Vancouver from 17 feet to 25 feet to enhance shipping.

The Columbian newspaper called for the channel to be deepened to 40 feet as early as 1905, but that depth was not attained until 1976.[15]

In 1999, Congress authorized dredging the lower Columbia, to deepen the channel between Portland and Astoria from 40 to 43 feet. A depth of 43 feet will make it possible for large container and grain ships to reach Portland and Vancouver.[16]

The project, however, has met opposition, due to concerns about stirring up toxic sediment on the riverbed. Portland-based Northwest Environmental Advocates brought a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers, but it was rejected by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in August, 2006.[17]

The project includes measures to mitigate environmental damage; for instance, for every acre of wetland damaged by the project, the Corps must restore 12 acres of wetland.[16] In early 2006, the Corps spilled 50 gallons of hydraulic oil into the Columbia, drawing further criticism from environmental organizations.[18]

Studies for the project were conducted as early as 1990, and were controversial from the start.[19] After approval in 1999, work began in 2005, and is expected to conclude in 2010. The project's cost is estimated at $150 million. The federal government is paying 65%, Oregon and Washington are paying $27 million each, and six local ports make payments as well.[16][20]

Dams: "harnessing" the river

This river may have been shaped by God, or glaciers, or the remnants of the inland sea, or gravity or a combination of all, but the Army Corps of Engineers controls it now. The Columbia rises and falls, not by the dictates of tide or rainfall, but by a computer-activated, legally-arbitrated, federally-allocated schedule that changes only when significant litigation is concluded, or a United States Senator nears election time. In that sense, it is reliable.

Timothy Egan, in The Good Rain[21]
Enlarge picture
Fish ladder at John Day Dam
The Columbia's heavy flow and extreme elevation drop over a short distance give it tremendous capacity for hydroelectricity generation. It was estimated in the 1960s – ’70s that the Columbia represented a fifth of the total hydroelectric capacity on Earth (although these estimates may no longer be accurate.) The Columbia drops 2.16 feet per mile (0 m/km), as compared with the Mississippi which drops less than 0.66 feet per mile (0 m/km).

Today, the mainstream of the Columbia River has 14 dams (three in Canada, 11 in the United States.) Four mainstem dams and four lower Snake River dams have locks to allow ship and barge passage. Numerous Columbia River tributaries have dams for hydroelectric and/or irrigation purposes. While hydroelectricity accounts for only 6.5% of energy in the United States, the Columbia and its tributaries provide approximately 60% of the hydroelectric power on the west coast.[22] The largest of the 150 hydroelectric projects, the Grand Coulee Dam and the Chief Joseph Dam, are also the largest in the United States; the Grand Coulee is the third largest in the world.

Inexpensive hydro-power supported the emergence of a vibrant aluminum industry, which draws tremendous amounts of power. In 1990, the United States produced 28% of the world's aluminum, much of it along the Columbia. But the commoditization of power in the early 2000s, coupled with drought that reduced the generation capacity of the river, damaged the industry; by 2003, the U.S. produced only 15% of the world's aluminum, many smelters among the Columbia having gone dormant or having gone out of business.[23][24]

Power remains relatively inexpensive along the Columbia, and in recent years, high-tech companies like Google have begun to move server farm operations into the area to avail themselves of cheap power.[25]

In addition to generating power, the dams extend the length of the river available for navigation by ships, and provide irrigation.

Grand Coulee Dam provides water for the Columbia Basin Project, one of the most extensive irrigation projects in the western United States. The project provides water to over 500,000 acres (2,000 km²) of fertile but arid lands in central Washington State. Water from the project has transformed the region from a wasteland barely able to produce subsistence levels of dry-land wheat crops to a major agricultural center. Important crops include apples, potatoes, alfalfa, wheat, corn (maize), barley, hops, beans, and sugar beets.

The dams in the United States are owned by the Federal Government (Army Corps of Engineers or Bureau of Reclamation), Public Utility Districts, and private power companies.

The installation of dams dramatically altered the landscape and ecosystem of the river. At one time the Columbia was one of the top salmon-producing river systems in the world. Previously active fishing sites, most notably Celilo Falls in the eastern Columbia River Gorge, have exhibited a sharp decline in fishing along the Columbia in the last century. The presence of dams, coupled with over-fishing, has played a major role in the reduction of salmon populations. Fish ladders have been installed at some dam sites to help the fish journey to spawning waters. Grand Coulee Dam has no fish ladders and completely blocks fish migration to the upper half of the Columbia River system.

Roll on, Columbia, roll on, roll on, Columbia, roll on
Your power is turning our darkness to dawn
Roll on, Columbia, roll on.

Roll on Columbia by Woody Guthrie, written under commission of the Bonneville Power Administration
Downriver of Grand Coulee, each dam’s reservoir is closely regulated by the Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and various Washington Public Utility Districts to ensure flow, flood control, and power generation objectives are met. Increasingly, hydro-power operations are required to meet standards under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and other agreements to manage operations to minimize impacts on salmon and other fish, and some conservation and fishing groups support removing four dams on the lower Snake River, the largest tributary of the Columbia.

In 1941, the Bonneville Power Administration hired Oklahoma folksinger Woody Guthrie to write songs for a documentary film promoting the benefits of hydropower. In the month he spent traveling the region Guthrie wrote 26 songs, which have become an important part of the cultural history of the region.[26][27]

Ecology and environment

Enlarge picture
Columbia River, Cascade Mountains, Oregon (1876) by Vincent Colyer (oil on canvas)
The Hanford Site was established in 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project. It is located along the river in southeastern Washington on 586 mile² (1,520 km²) of some of the most fertile land in North America; at the time of its establishment, the area was considered a wasteland. The site served as a plutonium production complex with nine nuclear reactors and related facilities. Most of the facilities were shut down in the 1960s. The site is currently under control of the Department of Energy, and is a Superfund site. The Superfund cleanup is expected to be completed in 2030.

Studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state monitoring programs have found that nuclear waste contaminated the Columbia's water, posing a potential threat to downstream communities that use the river's water for drinking water.[28][29]

Studies have also found significant levels of toxins in fish and the waters they inhabit within the basin. Accumulation of toxins in fish threatens the survival of fish species, and human consumption of these fish can lead to health problems. Many governments, communities and citizens have rallied to launch a long term and intense recovery effort to restore these remarkable fish.

Water quality is also an important factor in the survival of other wildlife and plants that grow in the Columbia River Basin. The states, Indian tribes, and federal government are all engaged in efforts to restore and improve the water, land, and air quality of the Columbia River Basin and have committed to work together to enhance and accomplish critical ecosystem restoration efforts. A number of important work efforts are currently underway, including Portland Harbor in the Lower Basin, Hanford in the Middle Basin and Lake Roosevelt in the Upper Basin.[30]

Environmental advocates have called for the removal of certain dams in the Columbia River system for many years. Of the 227 major dams in the Columbia River Basin, four dams on the Snake River are most often identified for removal. These dams and reservoirs currently limit the recovery of upriver salmon runs to Idaho's Salmon and Clearwater rivers,[31]Historically, the Snake produced over 1.5 million spring and summer Chinook Salmon, a number that has dwindled to several thousand in recent years.[32] Idaho Power Company's Hells Canyon dams have no fish ladders (and do not pass juvenile salmon downstream), and thus allow no steelhead or salmon to migrate above Hells Canyon. In 2007, the destruction of the Marmot Dam on the Sandy River marked the first of several dams to be removed in the system.[33]

On July 1 2003, Christopher Swain of Portland, Oregon became the first person to swim the Columbia River's entire length, in an effort to raise public awareness about the river's pollution.[34]

See also

References

1. ^ Columbia River Keeper, The River. Retrieved April 20 2007.
2. ^ Largest Rivers in the United States, USGS; retrieved April 21 2007. Maximum and minimum discharge data from Water Data Report WA-05-1, chapter Klickitat and White Salmon River Basins and the Columbia River from Kennewick to Bonneville Dam; retrieved April 20 2007. Identical data in: Loy, Willam G.; Stuart Allan, Aileen R. Buckley, James E. Meecham (2001). Atlas of Oregon. University of Oregon Press, 164-165. ISBN 0-87114-102-7. 
3. ^ Google Earth coordinates/elevation for Columbia Lake. Retrieved April 20 2007.
4. ^ USGS; USGS GNIS: Columbia River; retrieved April 20 2007.
5. ^ Loy, Willam G.; Stuart Allan, Aileen R. Buckley, James E. Meecham (2001). Atlas of Oregon. University of Oregon Press, 24. ISBN 0-87114-102-7. 
6. ^ Jacklet, Ben. "Columbia pilot pay attracts port’s eye", Portland Tribune, October 192004. Retrieved on 2007-06-14.2004"> 
7. ^ Glacial Lake Missoula and the Missoula Floods. U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved on 2006-11-19.
8. ^ Houck, Michael C.; Cody, M.J. (2000). Wild in the City. Oregon Historical Society. ISBN 0-87595-273-9. 
9. ^ Lemonick, Michael D., Andrea Dorfman. "Who Were The First Americans?", Time, March 132006.2006"> 
10. ^ Mortenson, Eric. "Still waters, stolen lives", The Oregonian, March 4, 2007. 
11. ^ Frazier, Joseph B.. "Half a Century Later, Dam's Closing Is a Painful Memory", Associated Press, The Washington Post, March 4, 2007. 
12. ^ Jacobs, Melvin C. (1938). Winning Oregon: A Study of An Expansionist Movement. The Caxton Printers, Ltd.. 77. 
13. ^ Reeder, Lee B.. "Open the Columbia to the sea", Pendleton Daily Tribune, E. P. Dodd, 1902. Retrieved on 2007-05-13. 
14. ^ Hopper Dredges, from globalsecurity.org
15. ^ "Rewind--Editorials from our archives: 1905: 40-ft. depth wanted", The Columbian, December 26, 2005. 
16. ^ Koenninger, Tom. "Dredging Columbia a very big job", The Columbian, March 7, 2007. 
17. ^ "In Our View - Monitor the Dredging", The Columbian, August 26, 2006. 
18. ^ Robinson, Erik. "State rebukes Corps of Engineers over oil spill", The Columbian, March 3, 2006. 
19. ^ Paul Koberstein and Kathie Durbin. "Cleanup study already bogged in controversy", The Oregonian, January 21, 1990. 
20. ^ "Bush budget offers $15 million for dredging", The Columbian, February 8, 2006. 
21. ^ Egan, Timothy (1990). The Good Rain. Knopf. ISBN 0394577248. 
22. ^ Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Annual, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Federal Columbia River Power System, brochure (2003), p. 1.
23. ^ Fehrenbacher, Gretchen. "Aluminum all but gone", The Columbian, February 23, 2003. 
24. ^ McCall, William. "BPA chief to detail strategy for troubled power broker", The Columbian, November 22, 2002. 
25. ^ Mehta, Stephanie N.. "Behold the server farm! Glorious temple of the information age!", Fortune, August 72006.2006"> 
26. ^ Heinz, Spencer. "Rolling along the Columbia, driving for Woody Guthrie", The Oregonian, July 82007.2007"> 
27. ^ Morrow, Lance. "This Land Is Whose Land? Times and priorities change. Woody Guthrie hailed Lewis and Clark for finding a place to build dams. Today his tune might be different", Time, July 82002.2002"> 
28. ^ EPA report, Hanford 100-Area (USDOE), September 2007
29. ^ Murphy, Kim. "Radioactive Waste Seeps Toward The Greatest River Of The American West", The Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2000. 
30. ^ EPA report on the Columbia. Columbia River Basin: A National Priority.
31. ^ Monroe, Bill. "Oregon's delicate balance", The Oregonian, September 11, 2006. 
32. ^ Milstein, Michael. "Court finds feds no help to fish", The Oregonian, April 10, 2007. 
33. ^ "A river released to the wild", The Oregonian, July 29, 2007. 
34. ^ Anderson, Jennifer. "Challenge sets off global ripples", The Portland Tribune, July 9 2004. Retrieved on 2007-06-07.2004"> 

Further reading

  • MacGibbon, Elma (1904). "Columbia River and Pullman", Leaves of knowledge (DJVU), Washington State Library's Classics in Washington History collection, Shaw & Borden. 

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