Because the Columbia River is 1,200 miles long and drains an area as big as France, and because its natural beauty is unsurpassed among U.S. waterways, Americans seemingly would protect it with all the gusto devoted to the Great Lakes, Puget Sound and Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately, that level of guardianship has been missing. The result of such neglect has been a rising uncertainty about water quality in the massive river.
Scientists know the Columbia contains pesticides, petroleum products and other pollutants from dozens of power-producing dams, numerous paper mills, countless farmlands and scores of cities large and small. But they don’t know how severely those contaminants have fouled the water, precisely where the stuff originates and how fast it’s moving. Each year in search of those answers, the bistate Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership receives a paltry $600,000 in federal funding. Meanwhile, Congress this year provided $400 million for monitoring water quality in the Great Lakes, $50 million for similar efforts in Puget Sound and $40 million for Chesapeake Bay.
Several Northwest congressmen want to eliminate that discrepancy in funding, and the 8 million people who live in the Columbia River basin should respond with a three-word chorus: It’s about time!
The Columbia River Restoration Act of 2010 (it’s mere title reverberates with promise) would direct as much as $40 million annually to monitor pollution in the Columbia River and to clean it up. As Erik Robinson reported in Wednesday’s Columbian, companion bills were introduced this week in the House by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and in the Senate by Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley. To the surprise of no one who has followed the environmental activism of U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, the Vancouver Democrat is co-sponsoring the House bill. Baird has declared this to be his last session in Congress, and as he moves into the final months, it’s appropriate for him to take one more stewardship stand for nature in the Northwest. He correctly calls the Columbia “one of the great estuaries, not only of America but of the world,” and decries the fact that “(e)very other major estuary in the country has a specific congressional authorization for efforts to study and remediate damages to the ecosystem, but this one doesn’t.”
With this long-overdue funding boost, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the LCREP could establish a network of water-quality monitoring sites all along the river.
Other co-sponsors include Washington Reps. Jim McDermott and Jay Inslee and Oregon Rep. David Wu, all Democrats. All other members of the Pacific Northwest’s congressional delegation are urged to support this act and help move it quickly to passage. If they’re not interested in the environmental protections the act offers (shame on them for that attitude), then they should at least find motivation in the 700 to 900 jobs the act would create for scientists and construction workers.
Merkley recently noted in a prepared statement that the Columbia River for more than two centuries has not only sustained tribal and commercial fishing interests, “it has become a transportation artery for businesses, a hydropower generator for our economy, and the source of irrigation for our farmers. By restoring the Columbia River and reducing toxic contamination, we will create jobs, protect public health and contribute to a healthy economic future for those who depend on the river for their livelihood.”
When you consider the long-range impacts of the river, it is important to more than just the people who work on and along it. The Columbia River is vital to all of us who live in its basin.