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Opinion
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Seek a better view of the Columbia River

The Columbian
Published: June 15, 2024, 6:03am

A single landform defines life for 258,000 square miles of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. We see it every day, but it’s very difficult to see it in context.

It’s the Columbia River, and it dictates our lives as residents of Clark County, of Washington and of the Pacific Northwest. The demands on the 1,200 mile river and its tributaries are myriad, complex and increasing. As our planet warms, it’s increasingly important to understand this river as a complex system and document all we ask of it.

People have relied on the river for thousands of years. According to stories of the first people to live along it, the spirit Coyote created the river after realizing that salmon lived in the ocean and the people living in the interior needed food. Coyote fought a battle with the giant beaver god Wishpoosh, and during their back-and-forth struggle the beaver’s tail scooped out the Columbia River Gorge and opened a path to the sea.

Modern geologists tell a tale almost as wondrous. According to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, a series of catastrophic floods – the greatest in the history of the world – scoured the route of the Columbia through what is now the Columbia River Gorge. Water released from glacial Lake Missoula swept across what is now Central Washington, leaving behind the empty river beds and dry waterfalls that define the landscape of a dozen counties.

The river means many things to many people. Native people still rely on its fish, but 13 stocks are currently listed under the Endangered Species Act. Nineteen hydroelectric dams in the produce approximately half of the Northwest’s electrical supply, plus provide flood control. Its water nourishes 47 percent of all irrigated farmland in the state, supporting 3,500 family farms and more than $3 billion in crops.

The river is an important transportation highway, safely and efficiently moving grain grown on the Great Plains downriver to export terminals. Last year, 4.3 million metric tons of wheat were exported from Vancouver alone, according to the Port of Vancouver. The Columbia provides recreation, and the basis of the tourism economies that increasingly support displaced timber towns like Stevenson and Hood River, Ore.

But like most relationships, it’s complicated. A Columbia River Treaty with Canada is due to expire this year. Cleanup is at a critical phase on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Tribes and the federal government recently reached an agreement to reintroduce oceangoing fish above Grand Coulee Dam. Some point to breaching lower Snake River dams as urgently needed to save native salmon stocks, while others point to increasing needs for electricity – some generated from hydroelectric resources – as a way to reduce global warming.

As we work to understand these issues, define problems and craft solutions, leaders need to look holistically at the Columbia River and the diverse roles it plays, from its headwaters in British Columbia, to Grand Coulee Dam, across the free-flowing Hanford Reach, through the Columbia Gorge and to its mouth, where mariners still fear and respect the force of the waves known as the Graveyard of the Pacific.

There’s an old joke about blind people feeling various parts of an elephant, then coming up with different ideas about the true nature of the beast. Our role as responsible stewards of the river, the land, and the people will be to use our eyes as we chart the future of the Great River of the West.

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