Talking About Water

Lest we forget that environmental and human health are intimately connected, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill delivered that message in spades. Dead birds and seaturtles were the poster animals for an event that closed fisheries and elevated health risks from volatile oil-based compounds in the air and water. Oregon State University researchers are working there with colleagues on marine mammals, fish and airborne toxins. A lot is riding on the results of these and other studies (not the least of which is settlement of costs), but as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner wrote, “Verifiable knowledge makes its way slowly and only under cultivation . . . .”

Stegner was writing about the American West and the outlandish promises made to lure Easterners to the plains in the 19th century. The bait: rich soils, an ideal climate, a never-ending bounty of food. While the Good Life went bust for many, the Pacific Northwest was blessed with rivers that could deliver myriad benefits.

The Columbia and its tributaries have been a source of sustenance for millennia.

The dams and reservoirs built over the last 75 years have turned America’s fourth largest river into an industrial engine that powers cities, irrigates farmland and serves as food source, playground and highway. To Stegner, the cost was too high. The wild river, he wrote, had been reduced to “tamely turning turbines.”

Since three-quarters of the Columbia’s water comes from the Canadian Rockies, managing the river has been a shared responsibility between the United States and Canada. The 1964 treaty that defines that international relationship could come up for reconsideration as early as 2014. Our cover story describes what’s at stake and OSU’s role in laying the groundwork for future negotiations.

Terra is entering its sixth year of publication, and we are marking this milestone with a makeover, both in print and online. The magazine has more room for photos and other art and two new departments, TerraBytes and Perspectives, bringing you updates on stories you may have read in past issues and opinions from OSU researchers. Online, you’ll find a portal to OSU’s research community with stories, upcoming events, news, faculty and student blogs, videos and other multimedia. We hope you find them enjoyable and engaging. Please visit us at