There are many entities relying on the Columbia River. Some need it for life, others for transport. All are competing and working in conjunction to have their needs met.
As snow melts from the river’s main source in the Canadian Rockies and mixes with rainfall, water flows to the Columbia River and its dams that power the region, ushering in ships sustaining habitats in the region. But how does the river’s flows and water levels impact all these things?
The river operates as a major commercial highway for ships bringing goods — and people.
In dry years, there are impacts to water levels near Vancouver in the fall, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a partner with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages dams in the Columbia River basin and the Bonneville Power Administration.
“However, we adjust our management to reduce those impacts, and low flows typically don’t affect our federal navigation mission,” Tom Conning, public affairs specialist of the Corps’ northwestern division, said in an email.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must delicately balance many priorities, such as flood risk management, navigation, irrigation, recreation, water quality, and fish and wildlife. These influence the economic vitality of the region, as well as the tribes, communities, industries and wildlife within it.
The Port of Vancouver pays close attention to water flows from snowpacks and its role in the navigability of the river.
Up until this point, the Columbia’s water levels have remained high enough to keep the shipping channel navigable, according to the Port of Vancouver.
“We want to make sure that continues in the years ahead,” Casey Bowman, spokesperson for the port, said in an email.
Alex Strogen, chief commercial officer for the Port of Vancouver, presented at a lecture that the depth of the Columbia River is a competitive advantage for the port. Ships can be loaded heavier at the Port of Vancouver than in some other harbors, allowing for greater efficiency for customers there.
“We’re very much aware of the troubling climate trends and the negative impacts they could have on water levels,” said Bowman, adding that the port has a climate action plan pledging to reach carbon neutral operations by 2050.
Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, which represents the Port of Vancouver, is advocating for the region’s water ports as part of the Columbia River Treaty. The treaty, signed by the U.S. and Canada in 1961, has undergone 15 rounds of negotiations between the two entities since 2018, according to the U.S. Department of State.
“Our goal is to ensure river navigation is protected in a final agreement,” Bowman said. “And while it’s not a done deal, we’re confident our efforts now will reduce the need to prepare for ‘what if’ scenarios later.”
Behind the flows
The Columbia River basin’s water levels look different every year, as the complex system experiences changing stream flows and weather patterns.
Last year, for example, the basin was dry until being hit by a large atmospheric river, or a dense collection of water vapor in the air that forms into rain or snowfall. The rain dump substantially increased the basin’s water levels in June, which led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to carry out flood management.
This year, that isn’t the case.
From October to date, precipitation has totaled 13.7 inches, about 77 percent of the average, 17.6 inches, according to the Northwest River Forecast Center.
Cold weather has prevented snow from melting, limiting how much water flows into reservoirs. The Columbia River has 57 percent of average runoff at The Dalles, Ore. — or more snowpack — which will be useful later in the spring when it melts and adds to stream flows, Conning said.
However, the seasonal water supply forecast from April to August projects that runoff will remain below average, resulting in below average spring and summer water flows. Storage reservoirs can release water into the river during these months, keeping them at a high, to compensate for low water levels.
Though predictions outline low flows, they don’t constitute as a dry year, which would trigger special reservoir operations, Conning said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will release thousands of gallons of water into the lower Columbia River on April 10 to maintain steady juvenile salmon and steelhead movement, as well as benefit returning fish. It will continue to release stored water throughout the summer and fall as needed.
“It’s always challenging as we seek to balance regional needs regarding dam operations, including flood risk management, hydropower production, navigation and fish management objectives,” regional fish policy lead Tim Dykstra said in a statement Monday. “Very high volumes of spill that benefit juvenile fish can sometimes disorient and hamper adult fish migrating upstream.”
For residents in the Pacific Northwest, a significant amount of power used here is generated by the dams. That’s where the Bonneville Power Administration comes in.
The administration monitors the river’s water levels year by year in real time. So last year, the wet winter created a good volume of water to power the dams.
“We were able to make more money than we’ve ever made,” said Doug Johnson, spokesperson for the administration.
The BPA makes projections for how much money will be generated from secondary sales after meeting the loads of its public customers. The estimates may turn out to be lower than the actual revenue brought in. Last year was such a year.
“This year has kind of played out to be a bit of an opposite,” Johnson said. “We had a colder, drier winter with lower stream flows.”
The BPA had to buy some fairly expensive power, he added. The administration has about 140 preference customers, one of which is Clark Public Utilities.
If water flows are heavier and more water is passing through the system, the BPA will end up with a surplus of power to sell to other utilities in the West. But other years, when water flows are lighter, the administration will end up purchasing power to meet the needs of its preference customers.
“Generally, we’ve been able to produce hydropower to meet demand during cold snaps in December and February, but it’s been challenging due to low inflows,” Conning said.
The shape the water takes also plays an important role in electricity generation, according to Johnson. A slow steady runoff through the spring and into summer would mean a better chance of meeting customers’ electricity needs.
“A lot of what we’ve experienced is still being written over the next month or two,” Johnson added. “We’ll have to see what happens.”
This story was corrected to reflect the proper spelling of Casey Bowman’s name.
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.