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Commentaries and editorials

Columbia River is No. 2 on List
of America's Endangered Rivers

by Joel Connelly
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 7, 2015

President Franklin Roosevelt and his entourage look out over Bonneville Dam on Sept. Sept. 28,1937, hours after he arrived by train to dedicate the new project. But the listing has more to do with opportunity than imminent danger.

The Colorado River holds down the No. 1 spot, largely due to a planned tramway development just outside Grand Canyon National Park and major real estate developments being plotted for the town of Tusayan, Arizona on the park's southern border.

With the Columbia River, by contrast, the damage was long ago done.

Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams blocked off more than 800 miles of river to upstream salmon migration.

The 1964 Columbia River treaty resulted in dams that inundated 90 miles of prime wildlife habitat upstream in British Columbia, and transformed the beautiful Arrow Lakes into reservoirs with fluctuating shorelines and clouds of dust.

The treaty, signed at the Peace Arch by President Lyndon Johnson and Canada's Prime Minister Lester Pearson -- along with British Columbia's then-Premier W.A.C. "Wacky" Bennett - is up for renegotiation.

The Northwest's greatest river has long been managed for power, irrigation and flood control by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as agribusiness interests and aluminum manufacturers.

Fisheries advocates, Native Americans and preservation groups comprise an additional "ecosystem function" recognized in how the river is run.

"As the Columbia River Treaty is renegotiated, the U.S. Department of State must put the importance of a healthy ecosystem on an equal footing with the benefits of hydropower and flood control," American Rivers said.

"We can achieve this balance by releasing more water for salmon when they need it and providing fish passage beyond currently impossible dams."

The "mighty Columbia" was once home to 16 million salmon. The river system now sees a little more than 2 million.

One impressive wild salmon population remains: A fall Chinook salmon run that spawns in the Hanford Reach of Eastern Washington -- 50 miles of river that was never dammed, and is protected as a national monument.

The salmon runs of the Snake River, the Columbia's principal tributary, have particularly suffered due to construction of four Army Corps of Engineers dams in the 1960s and 1970s. The dams do particular damage to the migration of young salmon to the Pacific Ocean.

A federal court battle over restoration of Columbia River salmon has raged on for years. The federal government has come up with a succession of salmon enhancement plans deemed inadequate by the court.

The Bonneville Power Administration has, at times, sought to stop the annual "fish flush," a spring release of water over Columbia River dams to benefit young salmon migrating downstream.

The state of Washington has tended to back federal agencies, agribusiness and the aluminum industry. Oregon has joined with commercial and sport fishing interests, and native groups, in defending release of water for fish.

In a largely unpublicized -- but eloquent -- statement, Washington's Catholic bishops have urged that the Columbia River be managed for its fish, wildlife and native peoples as well as power and irrigation.

American Rivers is using its "endangered" rating to seize opportunity, declaring:

"Once home to the largest salmon runs in the world, the mighty Columbia River is now blocked by a series of dams.

"However, the damage to the river's ecosystem can begin to be reversed if the federal government demands flow and fish passage commitments in a renegotiated Columbia River Treaty with Canada."

Related Pages:
For God So Loved the World by Bruce Barcott, Outside Magazine, 3/2001
Bishops' Charge to Care for the Columbia by Harry Esteve, The Oregonian, 3/4/1
Share the Columbia's Riches, Bishops Ask by Lisa Stiffler, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2/23/1
Bishops Sound the Alarm for Environment by Michelle Cole, The Oregonian, 2/23/1
Bishops Urge Conservation of Columbia by Sally Macdonald, Seattle Times, 2/22/1
Archbishop Urges Environmental Discussion by Shane Powell, Capital Press, 7/26/2

Joel Connelly
Columbia River is No. 2 on List of America's Endangered Rivers
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 7, 2015

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