The Columbia River winds its way through the states of Washington and Oregon and the Canadian province of British Columbia.
The river was once full of wild rapids and strong salmon populations.
Now, the 1,954-kilometer (1,214-mile) river is much calmer. Bridges seem to have tamed it, like saddles on horses. More importantly, a series of dams have chopped the once mighty Columbia into a series of peaceful reservoirs. Water passing through the blades of the dams generates power.
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. They link Oregon and Washington. Located in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, the Bonneville Dam was built for two reasons. One was to provide residents of the Pacific Northwest with electricity. The other was to make the waterway easier for boats to navigate.
Other dams were erected along the course of the Columbia, including the huge Grand Coulee Dam in Washington. It 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 generate about 50 percent to 65 percent of the area's electricity. They produce that power using less coal and natural gas than other power generators. The dams also make it possible for boats to travel 750 kilometers (465 miles) up the Columbia River, from the Pacific Ocean all the way to Lewiston, Idaho.
The dams have made trouble for the river's ecosystem, especially the Columbia's salmon. Jeff Hickman is a former organizer for the Sierra Club, an environmental organization. He says the area was once very healthy. "It had the largest population of fish on the planet," Hickman says.
The Columbia was once a fast-moving waterway, but the dams broke it into a handful of reservoirs with slower currents and warmer water. Hickman says the warmer temperature puts more stress on migrating fish. It also creates a more suitable environment for predators that eat those fish.
The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission is an organization that represents the region's Native American population. Bob Heinith is their water program coordinator. According to Heinith, the dams have destroyed fish habitats. He says dams have cut off access to upstream areas, which has destroyed about two-thirds of the overall habitat for fish.
Fish ladders were constructed at many of the dams. These allow adult salmon to bypass the dams and continue upstream to lay eggs. The fish ladders are like steps that water flows down. It creates a series of shallow waterfalls. Dams are often impossible for fish to pass. The salmon are able to get upstream using these fish ladders, though.
Once the fish are born upstream, they have to head back downstream to the ocean. The Bonneville Power Administration distributes the electricity. It has tried to assist the young fishes' journey downstream in a few ways. The dams' blades have been redesigned so that they are less dangerous to fish passing through. They also added a path that allows the fish to swim around the blades entirely.
A process known as spilling seems to help the fish, too. During salmon migrations, water is spilled over the dams to imitate the river's former flow. The dams generate less power, but it is better for the fish.
Over the last six years, a new problem has emerged.
Sea lions have learned that they can travel from the Pacific Ocean, up the Columbia River. At the base of Bonneville Dam, they can feast on the salmon that congregate there. To deal with the problem, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the states of Washington and Oregon scare away the animals with firecrackers and rubber bullets. The states have even begun the questionable process of putting to sleep repeat offenders.
The Sierra Club notes that the Bonneville Power Administration's efforts have yielded some results. Though they 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.
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.