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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
See what fish are swimming through the Bonneville Dam. The Bonneville Dam Fish Camera updates with a new photo every 20 seconds.
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.
person who fishes.
Army Corps of Engineers
government organization concerned with construction projects.
large, flat-bottomed boat used to transport cargo.
bottom layer of a structure.
series of hydroelectric dams and locks across the Columbia River in the U.S. states of Oregon and Washington.
Bonneville Power Administration
government agency that distributes electricity produced by dams on the Columbia River.
to go around or skip.
clamp down on
to strictly limit or control.
dark, solid fossil fuel mined from the earth.
(1,955 kilometers/1,214 miles) river in western Canada and the U.S., draining into the Pacific Ocean.
hard building material made from mixing cement with rock and water.
a disagreement or fight, usually over ideas or procedures.
questionable or leading to argument.
structure built across a river or other waterway to control the flow of water.
to tame or adapt for human use.
in the direction of a flow, toward its end.
community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.
set of physical phenomena associated with the presence and flow of electric charge.
to add to or increase in worth.
to build or raise.
to put to death.
noisemaking device made of a tube filled with explosive material.
series of steps overflowing with water, where fish can migrate upstream around a barrier such as a dam.
migration pattern for a species of fish, including route and the number of fish.
to foam or produce many tiny bubbles.
Grand Coulee Dam
hydroelectric dam on the Columbia River in the U.S. state of Washington.
environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.
usable energy generated by moving water converted to electricity.
to copy the style of something.
not possible to pass through.
to carry out plans.
type of plant or animal that is not indigenous to a particular area and causes economic or environmental harm.
animal that is no longer a baby but has not reached sexual maturity.
structure on a waterway where gates at each end allow the water level to raise and lower as they are opened and closed.
to continue, keep up, or support.
to move from one place or activity to another.
National Marine Fisheries Service
U.S. agency responsible for marine resources and habitats.
person whose ancestors were native inhabitants of North or South America. Native American usually does not include Eskimo or Hawaiian people.
type of fossil fuel made up mostly of the gas methane.
able for vessels to steer through.
to control or manage.
killing other animals for food.
natural or man-made lake.
healthy and strong.
hard-plastic ammunition fired from a normal or specialized firearm.
cold-water fish hunted for food and game.
U.S. organization that promotes the protection of wildlife and wildlife habitat.
important or impressive.
artificial water channel whose flow can be controlled.
to give birth to.
process of intentionally spilling water over the tops of dams.
stream that feeds, or flows, into a larger stream.
machine that captures the energy of a moving fluid, such as air or water.
toward an elevated part of a flow of fluid, or place where the fluid passed earlier.
flow of water descending steeply over a cliff. Also called a cascade.
entire river system or an area drained by a river and its tributaries.
fast-moving parts of a river.
to inflict or bring about something painful.
device for joining two draft animals, such as oxen, together at their necks.