In Our View: Restoring the River

Congress should seize chance to fund Columbia River restoration projects

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At 1,253 miles long, the Columbia River winds its way through the Pacific Northwest. The river and its tributaries touch seven states; people have lived along its banks and drawn their livelihoods from the river since prehistoric times.

Seemingly as long and winding these days is getting important bills through Congress. Take, for example, the Columbia River Basin Restoration Act.

Democratic Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Earl Blumenauer recently reintroduced the bill, which has languished in Washington for nearly five years.

According to Blumenauer, whose district stretches from Bonneville Dam to the mouth of the Willamette River, the act would authorize the Environmental Protection Agency to spend $50 million over five years. Competitive grants would fund projects that assist in eliminating or reducing pollution, clean up contaminated sites, improve water quality, increase water quality monitoring, or engage the public on these subjects.

“The Columbia River basin is the only large aquatic ecosystem that currently receives no dedicated funding to clean up and monitor toxics,” according to a statement from Merkley’s office. Those other large systems include Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound and the Great Lakes which, like the Columbia River, define a region.

Improving and monitoring water quality in the Columbia River is a difficult task. Eight million people live in the Columbia River basin. Many communities, including Vancouver, lie along the river. Those communities all have sewage treatment factories, storm drainage systems and business enterprises that pollute the river.

Yet the biggest contributor to Columbia River pollution is all of the so-called “nonpoint” sources along the river, such as fertilizer runoff from a homeowner’s lawn or pesticides from a farmer’s orchard. It’s not conceivable that all these sources of pollution can be identified, much less eliminated.

Restoration of Columbia River fisheries has received a lot of attention and funding. And this has been a great year for salmon. Fisheries managers announced a forecast of a record 1.5 million chinook — plus a huge coho run of 638,300. There was even a large smelt run this year, with the fish making it above Bonneville Dam.

The act would allow more efforts to improve quality as well as quantity of the fish. A 2002 study of Columbia River fish tissues showed the presence of 92 toxic chemicals. But at the moment, there’s no money even for permanent water quality monitoring.

Like any other legislation, the bill stands a chance of being labeled a partisan measure unless it gains the support of Republicans, including those representing lands east of the Cascades. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, was not one of the co-sponsors.

Herrera Beutler has spoken up for Columbia River environmental issues before. Earlier she introduced the Fundamentally Improving Salmon Habitat, or FISH, Act, which would let the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contract with local nonprofits to take the lead on salmon habitat restoration efforts costing less than $2 million.

With the Columbia River Basin Restoration Act, Herrera Beutler and her congressional colleagues have a chance to act on an additional, meaningful program to help restore and sustain the Great River of the West.