Countdown on the Columbia

Columbia River
Illustration by Alex Nabaum

By Aimee Brown

As we grow up, we have new experiences. We learn something we didn’t know before. We consider others. Make discoveries. Make mistakes. We fail and we succeed. In 1964, representatives of the United States and Canada ratified a treaty relating to the cooperative development of the water resources of the Columbia River Basin. They didn’t know what we know now.

The Beginning

There’s a river up in the Northwest that winds around mountains and rolls down valleys. Across flood plains and through wetlands, it slips like nature’s long wet tongue searching for the salt of the Pacific Ocean. Narrow and noisy at its headwaters in the Canadian Rockies, the river widens, slows and quiets as it drops south and west. It hides its energy deep, but this is a masquerade, not a natural act.

Nearly every drop of the Columbia River, the most powerful river in North America, is controlled from a dark fifth-floor room of a marble building in Portland, Oregon. I know. I’ve been there.

In between my first and second year of graduate school I was offered a fellowship with the weather and stream-flow forecasting group at the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). The offer came after I presented a conference poster on the implications of climate change for current snow measuring techniques in the Columbia River Basin. In faded Levis and a wool sweater, my hair unbrushed, I stood in front of a group of agency administrators, academics and executives and spoke: “It appears we’re headed for trouble. Under a range of warming scenarios our current measurement locations may likely be unreliable. Basically, we won’t know what we have, so we won’t know what we’re going to get.”

I was referring to our understanding of climate-driven changes in snow accumulation at elevations above 4,500 feet and how associated spring runoff would affect the hydrology and water availability within the Columbia River Basin. Turns out that’s a bit of a hot button topic, and a week later the lead hydrologist at BPA called and offered me a slot with his group.

I’m for fish, diverse alternative energy portfolios, constrained growth, clean water, big winters, crunchy Northwest culture and wild rivers. I’m against dams, energy trading, big developments, suits and some days, the federal government. I almost turned him down, but I had strong encouragement from Anne Nolin, Oregon State University associate professor in geosciences, and Aaron Wolf, department head for geosciences and an international expert on transboundary waters.

I signed on the line.

Click for larger image. Map by Gavin Potenza
Illustration by Alex Nabaum

Utilized for Maximum Benefit

The Columbia River Basin is the fourth largest river basin in North America. It covers more than 259,000 square miles and spans the international border between the United States and Canada. It is one of the most heavily developed rivers in the world in terms of hydroelectric power, capable of generating more than 21 million kilowatts of energy.

The first hydroelectric dam on the Columbia River was completed in 1933 at Rock Island, Washington. With almost double Rock Island’s generating capacity, the Bonneville Dam, located 40 miles east of Portland, followed in 1937. Four years later, both were dwarfed by Grand Coulee Dam, which had more than six times the generating capacity of Bonneville. A run-of-the-river dam (it uses natural flow, not a large reservoir, to generate power), Bonneville was designed with fish ladders to allow for the migration of native anadromous fish species. Grand Coulee, constructed as a storage reservoir, was not. These dams were the beginning. Twelve other major federal dams in the Columbia River Basin followed on the main stems of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Another 400 dams were built in the smaller reaches and tributaries. The primary purpose of these structures: flood control, hydropower and irrigation.

The Columbia River is about 1,200 miles long from headwaters to mouth. If all the dams in the Columbia Basin were lined up on the main stem, there would be a dam roughly every three miles. Their operation and management falls to three entities in the United States: the Bonneville Power Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation.

“The infrastructure on the Columbia has created many benefits, such as power generation, flood control, irrigation, navigation and recreation, but it has been to the detriment of the fish population and aspects of the ecosystem, and it has resulted in the displacement of communities and indigenous cultures,” says Lynette de Silva, associate director for OSU’s Program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation.

Since development of the Columbia River began, human use and reliance on the system have increased. In the last 60 years, population and per capita income have tripled across the Northwest, and irrigation, hydropower and flood control have experienced significant growth.

Wolf, a leader in a university consortium to reconsider the Columbia’s future, notes that communities are becoming more dependent on the river. At the same time, factors such as climate change, demographic shifts and degrading infrastructure will challenge the management abilities of federal and state agencies. At stake are domestic needs, fisheries, ecosystems and recreational opportunities, which are becoming major economic drivers across the basin.

A Lot Can Change in 46 Years

In 1964, the United States and Canada ratified a slight, 20-page document. The Treaty Between the United States of America and Canada Relating to the Cooperative Development of the Water Resources of the Columbia River Basin created the operating system for the Columbia River dams and the division of the power benefits. It led to the construction of three large storage dams in British Columbia, which are used for downstream flood control and power generation at the lower run-of-the-river dams.

For the last 46 years, the treaty has guided the cooperative management of the river for flood control and hydropower. Today, these are still important areas of focus and management; however, new issues have emerged.

During the drafting and implementation of the treaty, the environment and cultural and ecological health were not primary issues. The treaty focused on development of hydropower and on flood control for the mutual benefit of the two countries and has been extremely successful in those two areas, says Barb Cosens, an associate professor at the University of Idaho Waters of the West and College of Law. She notes that it was negotiated at the national and provincial levels with minimal public involvement. Today, she adds, communities on both sides of the international boundary have far greater capacity to demand a voice in the future of the basin.

In many ways the treaty is operating in the manner for which it was designed, says Cosens. There are issues, however, that were not recognized in the original treaty and that may now need to be addressed. Examples include in-stream ecosystem services (fisheries, water quality and endangered species habitat), cultural practices and recreation. Provisions in the treaty allow for either the United States or Canada to call for its termination after September 2024 with a minimum 10-year notice. As a result, 2014 has become a target for stakeholders and interested parties who seek to evaluate the treaty.

A formal opportunity for individuals and agencies to suggest changes to the treaty was largely absent during its initial drafting. That is no longer the case.

Revelstoke Dam. Located on the upper Columbia River and constructed in 1984, the dam forms Lake Revelstoke, a reservoir stretching for nearly 80 miles. The concrete hydroelectric gravity dam has an installed capacity of 1,843,000 kilo watts and is owned and operated by British Columbia Hydro. — Image by © Christopher Morris/Corbis

A Consortium on Columbia Basin Governance

In spring 2009, with input from a consortium of five universities, the University of Idaho convened a symposium (Transboundary River Governance in the Face of Uncertainty: The Columbia River Treaty, 2014) in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Cosens organized the meeting with colleagues from OSU and the universities of British Columbia, Washington and Montana. Their purpose is to help inform future treaty negotiations by determining some of the scenarios and outcomes that might influence Columbia River Basin decisions.

They explored questions about governing an international watercourse in the face of uncertainties: social and economic instability, climate and environmental change, continued regional population growth, a threatened and deteriorating ecosystem, demand for non-fossil fuel energy and deteriorating infrastructure. In one room, they brought together the dam operators, electricity generators, fishers, irrigators, wind surfers, policymakers, scientists, engineers and native people with deep ancestral roots. “The potential for new conversations is exciting,” says Wolf. “We’re bringing together people from all over the basin to create the future of the river.”

The second symposium — scheduled for November 2010 at Oregon State University in Corvallis — will address three key themes: needs and benefits, participatory processes and transboundary governance mechanisms.

This Land Is Our Land

Ultimately the federal governments of the United States and Canada determine the state of the Columbia and its governance, including whether or not to re-open the treaty for negotiation. While I was working at the Bonneville Power Administration, Anthony White (OSU B.S., Mathematics, ‘67), the secretary to the U.S. Entity for the Columbia River Treaty, regularly reminded me that the Columbia is an international navigable waterway subject to the authority of the State Department and other federal agencies. Withdrawals for municipal and farming purposes generally fall under state control. In many ways, White was right, but the river is much more than that.

The Columbia River is my river. It’s your river. Your children’s and your parents’. It’s the river of the salmon and the alder. The sturgeon. Snails. Douglas fir. Beaver. Osprey. Eagle. It’s our river. By coming together as a University Consortium on Columbia River Governance, OSU and its partners are helping to make sure all our voices, and all our concerns, are heard and explored using the best research available.

Editor’s note: For an announcement of recent scenarios completed for basin planning, see a Nov. 10, 2010 news release from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. The Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintain a website on treaty evaluation.


For the past 30 years my husband and I have been traveling up and down the Columbia from our home in Wenatchee which is about mid-point in the river’s journey. He is an independent Columbia River Historian and has just completed 4 years of painstakingly creating an Atlas of the Canadian Columbia which shows aerial surveys of the Canadian Columbia in 1962 and again in 2008, 2009. The changes brought about by the treaty are right there in the before and after photos. Every river has a people and the vastness of the Columbia makes it hard for the Columbia’s people to find each other amidst all the organizations. Your article is wonderful Aimee and heartening.

Susan Evans
William Layman


I have traveled the Columbia since 1955 and seen many of the major changes to the river and the Native Americans due to the dams. Initially the dams seemed to be beneficial, but as they proliferated and converted the Columbia from a wild river to a fishing pond, I realized they had benefits and liabilities. In the short term, it is not possible to determine how much the benefits offset the liabilities. As an Oregon son and OSU graduate (’66) I am encouraged to see people of your capability and drive standing up for a river that is relatively new to you and needs all the support it can get. Your efforts are appreciated and over time can have a major impact on how the river is used and preserved to the benefit of all of the earth.

Bruce Hamilton

I am fifth generation from The Dalles, on the banks of the Columbia River. In fact, my great great grandparents arrived at their homestead there by sailing up the Columbia from Astoria, from San Francisco, from the Sandwich Islands, from New Hampshire – the whole way by boat.

I have seen Celilo Falls because my parents wanted me to witness it before it was drowned, killed, in the backwaters of The Dalles Dam. I have grieved the loss of the river my whole live, N’Che Wana.

The Columbia is no longer a river and it is wrong to call it one since it is now a series of man made lakes. Calling it a river hides our destruction of it and the Native peoples who lived along it for thousands of years. I grieve this still.

To lend an ear and then bend a knee to heed what nature is telling us about our ignorance is the first step. Then we must create consensus in the hope to act swiftly and restoratively. The 19th century author Nathaniel Hawthorne spoke in his writings about the need for that existential variety and presense of mind to capture the understanding a free-market economy is so adroit at dissolving. To look down the road to where it bends in the universe.
I sincerely hope our generation is successful in the face of warming, population growth and poorly developed government agendas.
I’m 46. Was born in ’64. The parallel to the Columbia with my life has me thinking tonight. I bend my knee.

Rick Jacobsen

The Columbia and the dense woodlands of the northwest is why I went to college at Oregon State and biked 10k miles in 2 years back and forth to work in Astoria. Who would have ever imgained that a southern californian could handle such a feat but unspoken stories were heard through each storm and accumulated miles. The river regualtes the storms in and out of the northwest along with ocean currents. Its all interconneceted. We are one of our many within the complexities microecosystems thrive within. I talked to many local fishermen, loggers, was the first night auditor at cannery peir hotel about what the river meant to them. Its economic, aestetic and recreational uses, just to name a few indicate crucial reasons why it must not be dammed ever again. Eagles and the salmon wil once again emerge in record numbers when the last dam it brough down for the betterment of future generations

In the Northwest, the Columbia River is our belt: it supports our way of life. Each dam along its path is but another notch reminding us of the injustice to nature as a result of progress. It took 46 years to have this conversation about the river we now taunt as our next great endeavor of environmental reclamation. However, in 46 years we may have a different view. The Columbia River in its current fashion is certainly not the way nature intended to channel beauty. Personally, I would like nothing more than to experience indigenous tribes dip netting an anadromous bounty at Celilo, instead of imagining the sound when I look at a painting in my mothers dining room.

Mixed opinions result in mixed views. One person says they can’t wait to see the huge pile of rubble from removal of all those dams. Another says they can’t wait to see their power bill after paying for the removal of all those dams. One person is busy working out the kinks on a mud board capable of skimming across the flats under the Hood River bridge. Another is wondering what to do with kite board and windsurfing inventory at a shop on Macadam. No more dams means more kayaking, but not sailing. No more dams means white caps won’t tell drivers just how windy it is on their way to White Salmon. No more dams means a new opportunity at riverfront property. No more dams means more truck drivers on I-84. No more dams means everybody get in your boat and hurry up to the Willamette. No more dams means no more fish hatcheries, right? No more dams means no more problem sea lions, right? Just like Eisenhower was trying to do the right thing for his country by signing the dam treaty, we have to make sure that we take the next few years to explore the dam possibilities.

After graduating from OSU in 1976 with a degree in Fisheries Science, I went to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Vancouver, Washington. I spent the better part of 13 years spread over parts of three decades (70’s, 80, and 90’s) working on Columbia River fisheries issues. I have been in the marble building you describe to attend meetings, often with the frustration of the untouchable treaty hanging like a veil in the room. I remember wondering if the river and its fish resources were going to get a chance to really be heard in a forum that could actually make a difference.

This article should be an alert to anyone that loves the northwest and marvels at the river to take the time to get involved with this issue.

Thanks, Aimee. As I read the article, my hope is renewed.

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