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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.

In Our View: Flood control requires coordinated management

The Columbian
Published: May 8, 2024, 6:03am

Although figuring out how to cross above the Columbia River has received much attention in recent years, local residents should not ignore what is happening below. Flood control along the River of the West often is taken for granted but warrants attention.

This month, voters in the Portland area will weigh in on Measure 26-243. The proposal would raise $150 million toward the cost of upgrading levees, pump stations and floodplain management along the Columbia. It would trigger a federal matching grant of $100 million toward the expected $300 million cost.

Meanwhile, officials from the United States and Canada, along with Northwest tribes, continue to negotiate an update to the Columbia River Treaty, which dates back to 1961. Over the past six decades, the treaty has defined flood mitigation practices throughout the Columbia River Basin.

The need for such protection is clear. At this time of year, the Columbia River carries enough water past Vancouver to fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools every second. On a daily basis, there is enough water to cover Clark and Multnomah counties to a depth of more than 16 inches.

Typically, thanks to effective management throughout the basin, that water remains within its banks. It provides a spectacle for onlookers and fertile grounds for fishing and commerce. There is little concern about developing residences and retail businesses within a stone’s throw of the water.

But we do not have to delve deep into history to find reminders of the Columbia River’s power.

The 1948 Vanport Flood wiped out what then was the second-largest city in Oregon. Vanport, which was built to house workers for Henry Kaiser’s shipyards in Vancouver and Portland during World War II, occupied what is now the Delta Park area on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. Officials say 15 people were killed in the flood, although observers say the death toll was significantly higher.

More recently, 1996 saw flooding throughout the Northwest. Heavy snowfall was followed quickly by heavy rains that melted the snowpack, creating waterflow that overwhelmed the river system. In Vancouver, several downtown blocks were evacuated as a precaution.

Following the Vanport disaster, extensive flood mitigation measures were enacted. Now, voters are being asked to approve repairs to a 27-mile levee system. Advocates say that without those repairs, the levee system could lose federal certification, dramatically increasing the cost of flood insurance and limiting the ability to develop nearby properties.

Flood control, however, does not begin in the metro area; it begins at the Canadian headwaters of the river. There, a series of dams built under the provisions of the Columbia River Treaty have protected downriver communities for decades. That includes Vancouver, about 1,100 miles from those headwaters.

The treaty also provides for irrigation and hydroelectricity throughout a basin that is roughly the size of Texas. As one expert once explained to The Columbian, the treaty is “the most important economic driver in the Northwest that nobody has ever heard of.”

The U.S. Department of State notes that, “2024 is a significant date for the Treaty, as the current flood risk management provisions change to a less-defined approach.” Nearly 20 rounds of negotiations have been held since 2018, but deadlines are drawing near.

Taming the Columbia River and maintaining it as an economic engine demands deft management at both the local and national levels.