The Columbia River used to be a wild waterway full of frothing whitewater and robust salmon populations.

 

Now, the 1,954-kilometer (1,214-mile) river has been domesticated: Bridges seem to clamp down on the Columbia like yokes and, more importantly, a series of dams and locks have chopped the once mighty Columbia into a series of placid reservoirs.

 

The first major manmade change to the Columbia River occurred in 1938, with the completion of the Bonneville Dam. The Bonneville Dam is actually a series of several dams, and links the states of Oregon and Washington. Located in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Bonneville Dam was built for two reasons: to provide residents of the Pacific Northwest with electricity and to make the waterway more navigable for boat traffic.

 

Other dams were erected along the course of the Columbia, including the massive Grand Coulee Dam in Washington, which is the largest concrete structure in the United States. Currently, there are 14 major dams on the main stem of the Columbia River.

 

The dams on the Columbia and its tributaries account for about 50 to 65 percent of the area’s electricity generation, and they produce the power using less coal and natural gas than other power generators. The manmade structures also make it possible for barges and boats to travel 750 kilometers (465 miles) up the Columbia River, from the Pacific Ocean all the way to Lewiston, Idaho.

 

Salmon Runs

 

Despite the benefits to human residents in the area, the dams have wreaked havoc on the river’s ecosystem, especially the Columbia’s salmon. Jeff Hickman, hunter and former organizer for the Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club, says that it’s hard to determine exactly how many salmon were in the river before the construction of the dams, because records were not taken until after the structures were already in place.

 

“The Columbia River historically was the most healthy watershed,” Hickman says. “It had the largest population of fish on the planet.”

 

The dams transformed the Columbia from a fast-moving waterway to what is basically a handful of reservoirs with slower currents and warmer water.

 

“That water temperature not only puts more stress on migrating fish, traveling fish, but also makes a more suitable environment for predatory, invasive fish such as smallmouth bass and walleye and native fish such as the northern pike minnow, which is commonly called the squaw fish,” Hickman says.

 

Bob Heinith is the hydro program coordinator for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, an organization that represents the region’s Native American population. According to Heinith, the dams have destroyed fish habitats.

 

“We’ve lost about two-thirds of the overall habitat for fish by large storage dams that have cut off passage to upstream areas,” Heinith says.

 

Fish Ladders

 

At all of the government-owned dams (excluding Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee) fish ladders were constructed so that the adult salmon could bypass the structures and continue upstream to spawn. The fish ladders are like stair steps that water flows down, creating a series of shallow waterfalls. While dams often prove impassable for the fish, the salmon are able to get upstream using these fish ladders.

Though the adult fishes’ swims upriver to spawn were taken into account when the dams were built, little thought was initially given to the juvenile fish that head downstream toward the ocean.

 

The Bonneville Power Administration, which distributes electricity, has implemented several methods to assist the juvenile fishes’ journey downstream. The dams’ turbines have been redesigned so that they are less of a hazard to juvenile fish passing through. Another improvement at Bonneville Dam is a sluiceway that takes the fish away from the turbines entirely and delivers them to the river two miles downstream.

 

Heinith believes there is one effort by the Bonneville Power Administration that appears to work better than the organization’s other projects. It’s a process known as spilling. During salmon migrations, water is spilled over the dams to imitate the river’s former flow.

 

“What we’ve seen that is the most effective is spilling, spilling over the dams,” he says. “Of course, that’s in direct conflict with power generation.”

Sea Lions

 

Over the last six years, a new problem has emerged for the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates Bonneville Dam.

 

Sea lions have learned that they can travel from the Pacific Ocean all the way up the Columbia River to the base of Bonneville Dam, where they can dine on all the salmon that congregatethere before attempting to bypass the structure. To combat the problem, the National Marine Fisheries Servicegave permission to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the states of Washington and Oregon to scare away the marine mammals with firecrackers or rubber bullets. The states have even begun the controversial process of euthanizing, or humanely killing, repeat offenders.

 

Michael Milstein, a former Bonneville Power Administration Public Affairs Officer and current NOAA Fisheries Public Affairs Officer, says that over the years the dams have been changed significantly in an attempt to lessen their impact on the river’s ecosystem.

 

“They are really different dams than they were when they were first built in terms of the way they affect fish,” Milstein says.

 

The Sierra Club notes that the Bonneville Power Administration’s efforts have yielded some results, but they have to wonder if the dams are worth all the extra time and money. 



“There’s no doubt it’s helping, but you have to weigh out the costs,” Hickman says. “If it costs this much to operate the dam at a legal level to comply with maintaining or enhancing fish runs, then how much are you gaining by having the dams in place? How much is it benefiting us by hydroelectric powered barge navigation? Sometimes, those cause and effects don’t weigh out.”

 

 

 

Fish Tale
The Bonneville Dam is part of the border between Oregon and Washington.

Fish Cam
See what fish are swimming through the Bonneville Dam. The Bonneville Dam Fish Camera updates with a new photo every 20 seconds.

River Writer
During the 1930s, American singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie was hired by the Bonneville Power Administration to write songs promoting the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River. During the month-long job, he penned classics including Roll On Columbia, Grand Coulee Dam, and Pastures of Plenty.

angler
Noun

person who fishes.

Army Corps of Engineers
Noun

government organization concerned with construction projects.

barge
Noun

large, flat-bottomed boat used to transport cargo.

base
Noun

bottom layer of a structure.

Bonneville Dam
Noun

series of hydroelectric dams and locks across the Columbia River in the U.S. states of Oregon and Washington.

Bonneville Power Administration
Noun

government agency that distributes electricity produced by dams on the Columbia River.

bypass
Verb

to go around or skip.

clamp down on
Verb

to strictly limit or control.

Noun

dark, solid fossil fuel mined from the earth.

Columbia River
Noun

(1,955 kilometers/1,214 miles) river in western Canada and the U.S., draining into the Pacific Ocean.

comply
Verb

to obey.

concrete
Noun

hard building material made from mixing cement with rock and water.

conflict
Noun

a disagreement or fight, usually over ideas or procedures.

congregate
Verb

to gather.

controversial
Noun

questionable or leading to argument.

dam
Noun

structure built across a river or other waterway to control the flow of water.

determine
Verb

to decide.

dine
Verb

to eat.

domesticate
Verb

to tame or adapt for human use.

downstream
Noun

in the direction of a flow, toward its end.

Noun

community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

electricity
Noun

set of physical phenomena associated with the presence and flow of electric charge.

enhance
Verb

to add to or increase in worth.

erect
Verb

to build or raise.

euthanize
Verb

to put to death.

firecracker
Noun

noisemaking device made of a tube filled with explosive material.

fish ladder
Noun

series of steps overflowing with water, where fish can migrate upstream around a barrier such as a dam.

fish run
Noun

migration pattern for a species of fish, including route and the number of fish.

froth
Verb

to foam or produce many tiny bubbles.

Grand Coulee Dam
Noun

hydroelectric dam on the Columbia River in the U.S. state of Washington.

Noun

environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

havoc
Noun

violent destruction.

hydroelectric power
Noun

usable energy generated by moving water converted to electricity.

imitate
Verb

to copy the style of something.

impassable
Adjective

not possible to pass through.

implement
Verb

to carry out plans.

initially
Adverb

at first.

Noun

type of plant or animal that is not indigenous to a particular area and causes economic or environmental harm.

juvenile
Noun

animal that is no longer a baby but has not reached sexual maturity.

lock
Noun

structure on a waterway where gates at each end allow the water level to raise and lower as they are opened and closed.

maintain
Verb

to continue, keep up, or support.

migrate
Verb

to move from one place or activity to another.

National Marine Fisheries Service
Noun

U.S. agency responsible for marine resources and habitats.

Native American
Noun

person whose ancestors were native inhabitants of North or South America. Native American usually does not include Eskimo or Hawaiian people.

Noun

type of fossil fuel made up mostly of the gas methane.

navigable
Adjective

able for vessels to steer through.

operate
Verb

to control or manage.

placid
Adjective

calm.

predatory
Adjective

killing other animals for food.

Noun

natural or man-made lake.

robust
Adjective

healthy and strong.

rubber bullet
Noun

hard-plastic ammunition fired from a normal or specialized firearm.

salmon
Noun

cold-water fish hunted for food and game.

sea lion
Noun

marine mammal.

Sierra Club
Noun

U.S. organization that promotes the protection of wildlife and wildlife habitat.

significant
Adjective

important or impressive.

sluiceway
Noun

artificial water channel whose flow can be controlled.

spawn
Verb

to give birth to.

spilling
Noun

process of intentionally spilling water over the tops of dams.

Noun

stream that feeds, or flows, into a larger stream.

turbine
Noun

machine that captures the energy of a moving fluid, such as air or water.

upstream
Adjective

toward an elevated part of a flow of fluid, or place where the fluid passed earlier.

Noun

flow of water descending steeply over a cliff. Also called a cascade.

Noun

entire river system or an area drained by a river and its tributaries.

whitewater
Noun

fast-moving parts of a river.

wreak
Verb

to inflict or bring about something painful.

yoke
Noun

device for joining two draft animals, such as oxen, together at their necks.