Friday, August 14, 2020
Aug. 14, 2020

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In our view: A Cleaner Columbia

New river restoration act holds promise for removing pollutants from vital waterway

The Columbian

Despite the meticulous nature of their historic journey, Lewis and Clark managed to miss some relevant facts about the Columbia River.

So did Woody Guthrie, when he wrote and warbled, “Roll on, Columbia, roll on/Roll on, Columbia, roll on/Your power is turning our darkness to dawn/So roll on, Columbia, roll on.”

In fact, nowhere in the many lyrical tributes to the great river of the West will you find any mention of polychlorinated biphenyls. Or polybrominated diphenyl ether. Or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane.

Maybe that’s because such polysyllabic chemicals were a far-fetched notion in the early 1800s and the 1930s. Maybe that’s because the environmental movement would have been viewed as some sort of futuristic science-fiction tale during the times of Lewis and Clark or Guthrie.

But as humankind has come to grips with not only its ability to create devastating chemicals but its obligation to manage and control them, we have come to the realization that things with long, scientific-sounding names are not necessarily good for our waterways. And the fact that said chemicals exist in the modern Columbia River points out the importance of efforts to clean up the 1,243-mile-long aquatic arterial.

Why, one study showed that trout in the Spokane River (which feeds into the Columbia) went from zero particles of polybrominated diphenyl ether in 1996 to 400 parts per billion in 2005.

With that in mind, the Environmental Protection Agency recently released a proposal for reducing the thousands of pollutants that find their way into the river, a proposal that forms the foundation of the Columbia River Restoration Act of 2010. The plan follows a report last year that identified four key chemicals that are areas of concern — the three mentioned above, along with mercury.

Now, mercury might have a short, easy-to-pronounce name, but its presence in the Columbia isn’t the kind of thing Guthrie likely would have celebrated in song. Which leads us to the recently announced proposal.

“The federal government’s spending a lot of money on salmon recovery,” said Mary Lou Soscia, the EPA’s Columbia River cleanup coordinator in Portland, as reported by The Columbian. “And there are a lot of scientists who believe we’re going to have a hard time if we don’t pay attention to these toxic issues.” According to the article, the working group that developed the plan suggests it will cost $6 million to implement a year’s worth of new actions. This will include increased monitoring, pesticide reduction initiatives, and public education.

And while news of government expenditures seems to be unending these days, efforts to maintain a safe and healthy Columbia River will have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences. When you consider that the Columbia River basin covers roughly as many square miles as France, you understand the impact the river has on the quality of life in the Pacific Northwest.

In terms of the EPA’s 2006-2011 Strategic Plan, the Columbia is designated as one of the nation’s great water bodies, along with Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, the South Florida ecosystem, Long Island Sound and Puget Sound. With such a designation, the goal becomes a 10 percent reduction in contaminants found in the water and in fish tissue.

That sounds like a reasonable effort. But it’s only a start. If scientists and government officials can, indeed, find effective and cost-efficient methods for reducing the toxins, the benefits will be experienced far and wide by humans, fish and wildlife.

And that’s the kind of thing that might have made Woody Guthrie break out in song.