The Columbia River Must be Restored

The Columbia River Must be Restored

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A problem is arising in the Northwest region of our country.  The Columbia River is being abused by human expansion, which is resulting in the depletion of the variety of species found in the region, the number of each species, and the quality of life in the riparian habitat.

A river is a living thing, flowing through time as well as space.  A river has a personality that reflects past circumstance as well as condition.  The Columbia, though now shackled in concrete traces, a wild creature turned workhorse, still has an aura of power and controversy.  It has been abused for long enough.  It is time to let the river flow.

The once wild, free-flowing Columbia River no longer exists.  Since the 1930s, hydropower development has modified the Columbia River basin from a system which once encompassed more than 30 unique and diverse sub-basins to a series of electric power generators that include 19 dams and 100 smaller projects (McGinnis 69).  The power of the river has been captured for human consumption.  As a result of this increased demand for power, new areas must be deforested and developed.  In effect, this evicts the animals from their homes and forces them to find other places for refuge.

Over one and a half million people live near the dramatic beauty of the lower Columbia River (Frissell 382).  The people who live there depend on the river for their economic well being.  Many more visit from elsewhere for rest, recreation, or business.  Unfortunately, these activities have taken a toll on the river.  Humans have been taking advantage of the gifts that nature has given them.  Unless action is taken soon, there could be a large problem.  Human activity and growth is occurring and impacting the natural resource.  The effectiveness of land use planning determines the extent to which the critical habitat can be protected.  Appropriate land use and development practices can reduce or eliminate the stress placed on the natural systems.

The significance of this problem is not hard to find.  With the population of the Portland metropolitan area projected to reach 3 million people within 50 years (Oregon DEQ), it is vitally important to act now.  The effects of this growth combined with past and present activities places significant stress on the natural system.  If left unaddressed, the adverse effects already documented will intensify, resulting in a number of problems.

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One consequence may be the increased loss of fish and wildlife habitat.  Each increment of loss is more critical than the last; the release of more toxic and conventional pollutants to the system due to increased waste streams; diminished opportunity to enjoy and use the resource due to pollutants from wastewater treatment, storm water, and other sources; ultimately resulting in impaired quality of life for humans, fish, and wildlife.  This is why we must do something now about this problem.

The impact of humans on the natural ecosystem of the Columbia River Estuary is widespread and detrimental.  It causes animal populations, such as salmon and bald eagles, which were once abundant, to be depleted due to the carelessness and lack of forethought exhibited by the regional resource managers (Sherwood 303).  The abuse of the riparian area has caused the form of the Columbia River to be altered, ultimately resulting in salmon and bald eagle population decreases.

One effect of the river development has been the depletion in the number of salmon.  They used to be able to swim up to 1,200 miles upstream to spawn; they now need to swim up the fish ladders and navigate their way through low water areas because the spring floods are gone due to the dams.  In 1850, the Columbia River Basin produced as many as 16 million salmon.  Today it produces barely 100,000 a year.  According to the American Fisheries Society and Oregon Trout, over 200 salmon species are extinct and 76 more are at risk of extinction (Collins 15).

In the Pacific Northwest, native diversity loss and habitat degradation are some of the most significant in the world.  Biological collapse of several important species is a real possibility within the next decade.  More than 106 populations of West Coast salmonoids have been driven to extinction, and over 214 additional salmonoid populations are currently at risk of extinction.  In addition to the endangered salmon populations, approximately 132 animal species dependent on riparian habitat, including three birds, four mammals, 12 amphibians, 45 mollusks, and 34 arthropods are at risk of extinction.  (Frissell 342).

The first cause of animal depletion is the negligence of the human parties involved.  When agencies such as the Oregon or Washington State governments began using the Columbia for electrical power, they didn’t think of the repercussions that would transpire.  One reason for the indecisiveness and delay in action to correct their errors is that there are so many different agencies that have an interest in the river system.  Due to a decentralized intergovernmental process, a multitude of stakeholders including watershed management councils, the Northwest Power Planning Council (NPPC), 11 state and federal agencies, 13 Indian tribes, eight utilities, and numerous fish, forest and environmental interest groups, coming to any decision is not easy (McGinnis 65).

  In addition, each regional agency treats the river differently depending on their interests.  The hard part will be to bring all of the groups together and attempt to fix the problem as a united team rather than as separate entities.  This has been the cause for the delay in repairing the river ecosystem.  Fortunately for the health of the river, the trends that were occurring did not go unnoticed.  An interstate compact called the NPPC was created by Congress in order to preserve and restore the fish and wildlife to the basin (McGinnis 63).

Wallace Stegner summed it up very eloquently:

Angry as one may be at what heedless men have done and still do to a   noble habitat, one cannot be pessimistic about the west.  This is the home   of hope.  When it finally learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism,   is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have   outlived its origins.  Then it has a chance to create a society to match its   scenery.

  Dredging and pile dikes have altered the form of the estuary.  Jetties at the entrance have moved the mouth of the estuary seaward causing the enormous salmon runs that once passed through the estuary to be reduced (Sherwood 303).  These elements have caused a drastic transformation in the shape of the river and the number of species that call it home.

It must stop now.  The Columbia River Estuary needs to be returned to its original and natural state due to animals’ population loss and the long-term effects on the region.  If action is not taken, the repercussions could be detrimental and permanent.

The long-term risks for the river to support the region are also approaching critical.  The forest surrounding the Columbia is being chopped down in order to make room for further development.  Grazing, timber harvesting, road building, and other activities put a great deal of stress on the environment and contribute to its deterioration.  Animals are being driven from their homes.  The water is being pumped out of the river for irrigation purposes all over the Northwest (Williams 190).  The naturalness of the Columbia is literally being drained from existence.  The time to act is rapidly approaching.

However, steps are being made to keep the power flowing from the river.  Approximately 350 million acres of public lands are being set aside for “multiple use values” (Thomas 183).  The purpose of this is to provide ecological integrity and economic and social resiliency.  The Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project (ICBEMP) came up with some goals to explicitly recognize the ways in which “humans depend on and interact with the environment in today’s world” (Thomas 184).  They focus on returning the river to a healthy state, keeping the levels of products consistent with the capabilities of the ecosystem, provide cultural, recreational, and aesthetic enjoyment, help the animal populations rebound, and manage the natural resources (Thomas 184).  This is the first step on the way to achieving the common goal of returning the river to its natural state.  Now that the objectives are set, it will be much easier for them to achieve their goals.

The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are working together to repair the riparian area.  They implemented the ICBEMP as a directive of the President of the United States in order to attempt to protect the endangered species of the region.  From 1985-1994, timber harvest was decreased by about 50% (Thomas 182).  However, there still remains a problem with the enforcement of new regulations.  The NPPC does not have as much power as it needs to in order to be effective.

We can only pray that we have not done irreversible damage to this natural resource.

Due to our mistreatment of the Columbia River system, we must now make reparations.  I propose that the animal populations in the Columbia River Basin be replenished to preexisting quantities through legislation and awareness programs.  Although it seems simple enough, this will actually be an extensive project.  Many different agencies have an interest in the River and will fight for their position.  The lumber companies will not want to stop razing the forests.  The power companies depend on the River for energy.  Many people depend on the River indirectly for their everyday lives.  There will be much initial opposition to changing the River laws, but in the long run every company will see that they did the right thing.

The Lower Columbia River Estuary Program (LCREP) is working on a plan to repair the Columbia to its natural state of being.  However, no solution is easy.  In order for any action to be taken, people must first be made aware of the problem.  LCREP is currently developing short video programs about the state of the Columbia River as a starting point for awareness.  They are instituting programs that will travel to schools in order to teach the children how to maintain a healthy river system.  These programs will consist of one or two experts, paired based on their level of knowledge, to visit classrooms and disperse information to the children to take home.  By teaching the children when they are young, the values should be instilled in them.

To achieve a complete restoration of the Columbia River, I believe the following steps need to take place:

Take out the dams---the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are doing feasibility studies on breaching the dams.  This deals with the amount of money involved and the practicality of removing the dam.  Although never studied on a massive scale, the federal government is starting to consider dam removal a viable option.

During the 1920s and 1930s, regional power companies projected an insufficient energy supply to serve the population of the Pacific Northwest.  As a result, the federal government constructed 14 major dams throughout the Columbia River to provide hydroelectric power.  Since the construction of these dams, the Pacific Northwest has enjoyed the cheapest electricity in the country.  However, these original estimates were exaggerated and the Pacific Northwest has not experienced the projected shortage of power.

Eliminate the toxic discharges from pulp and paper mills on the river---Currently the pulp and paper industry is researching new ways to manufacture pulp and paper products without using chlorine and other harmful chemicals.  During the current manufacturing process, chlorine is used to bleach the paper and when discharged, combines with other chemicals to form dioxin, a bio-accumulative carcinogen.  In this new manufacturing process called Total-Chlorine Free (TCF) manufacturing, no chlorine is used and no dioxin is discharged.  If consumers would buy more recycled paper, then we wouldn't need as much new paper.

Develop and implement best management practices (BMPs) for agriculture, ranching, forestry, and urban development---BMPs are guidelines developed by state and federal agencies which show people how to conduct their work with the least amount of harm to the environment.

Establish a personal connection to the river---Get people to (on) the river through promotional advertising emphasizing the beauty and splendor of the Columbia.  Activities such as camping, canoeing, and hiking can be among the most popular.  By bringing people to the River, they can see first-hand the devastation of their carelessness.

Teach people about the connections between how they live their everyday lives and how their actions affect the river, including the amount of resource consumption and the urban development.  If they can see that pouring motor oil down the drain leads to the sewer pipes which ultimately leads to the River, maybe next time they would think twice before dumping caustic chemicals down the drain. Much of the damage done is simply a case of ignorance.  These programs are meant to inform and educate the public.

Although no plan is foolproof (and this one was developed over a 2 month period), I believe that this is a plausible solution to the some of the problems of the Columbia River and its inhabitants.  It will take much persuading and even more determination, but it is not too late to repair the riparian region.  But it is up to the people, first and foremost, to assume the responsibilities of their actions, and do what is necessary to fix them.

Works Cited

Collins, Brian. “Salmon were an afterthought to 136 Columbia River dams.”  High
Country News 13 July 1992: 15-18.

Frissell, Christopher A. “Topology of Extinction and Endangerment of Native Fishes in  the Pacific Northwest and California (U.S.A.).” Conservation Biology 7 (1993):  342.

Lewis, Meriwether, and William Clark. The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
  Ed. Elliott Coues. New York: Dover, 1893.

Marts, Marion E.  “The Columbia River—Some Contemporary Conflicts.”  Columbia
River: An inexhaustible resource? Washington, 1980.

McGinnis, Michael V.  “On the Verge of Collapse: The Columbia River System, Wild  Salmon and the Northwest Power Planning Council.”  National Resources Journal  35 (1995): 63-91.

“Oregon State Department of Environmental Quality.” 9 September 1998. (9 September 1998).

Sherwood, C. R.; Jay, D. A.; Harvey, R. B.; Hamilton, P.; and C. A. Simenstad.   “Historical Changes in the Columbia River Estuary.”  Progress in Oceanography  25 (1990): 271-349.

Thomas, Jack Ward, and Mike Dombeck. “Ecosystem management in the interior
Columbia River Basin.” Wildlife Society Bulletin 24 (1996): 180-186.

Williams, Christopher E., and Meredith E. Lathbury. “Economic incentives for habitat
conservation on private land: applications to the inland Pacific Northwest.” Wildlife Society Bulletin 24 (1996) 187-191.

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