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Shrinking Columbia
Changing Face of Northwest

by Shannon Dininny, Associated Press
Salt Lake Tribune, June 5, 2005

More people, less water lead to big problems

ASTORIA, Ore. - The water seems quiet and calm at the mouth of the Columbia River, offering no hint of its turbulent history or the deep emotions it provokes in the Pacific Northwest.

From its headwaters in British Columbia's Selkirk Mountains, the river weaves through a tapestry of mountains, desert sagebrush and steep canyons to the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, it serves as the cord that ties the region together.

It nourishes communities and crops, wildlife and fish. It provides a treasure of irrigation, transportation and electricity. For Indian peoples and the millions of non-native settlers who followed, it's a spiritual and recreational jewel to be cherished and enjoyed.

But demands on the river are escalating as the region changes, and conflicts that smolder along the river are heating up.

A multiyear drought and significant growth have parched communities and farmers demanding more water from the river and its tributaries. Dismal snowpack this spring will leave streams and rivers low, once again raising the specter of a fish vs. power debate.

Jim Wells, a weathered fisherman on the Oregon coast, worries about the future for the three sons who are trying to follow him into the business. Already, one has opted for an engineering career instead, though he's holding onto his commercial fishing permit in case conditions improve.

"There's just not enough in it to be a fisherman today," Wells said. "Without the fish, there's no money, and without money, these communities dry up."

Similar worries can be heard from competing Columbia water users: farmers who rely on barge transportation to get grain t 看看看Similar worries can be heard from competing Columbia water users: farmers who rely on barge transportation to get grain to market, vintners who need irrigation to feed the region's growing wine industry, sport fishermen who worry that the thrill of hooking a big salmon might become a thing of the past.

"Whoever controls this river and its resources controls so much of the wealth of this region," said Katrine Barber, assistant professor of history 看 at Portland State University. "Nobody is very happy with the compromise that gets struck. I think that's probably going to be the future."

Between 1990 and 2000, the population in Washington, Idaho and Oregon grew more than 20 percent, increasing demand for water and power. That growth continues today, even as parts of the Columbia River basin enter their seventh straight year of severe drought.

In Idaho, the water supply outlook for the summer was reported as "dismal" by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. In Washington state, snowpack and the water supply are the worst since records have been kept.

The region is getting warmer, said Alan Hamlet, research scientist for the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group. Since 1950, the Pacific Northwest has lost as much as half of its average annual snowpack. Part of the decline can be attributed to drier conditions, but higher temperatures also played a role, Hamlet said.

The result: more rain flowing down the river in winter and spring, when it's already flush with water, instead of a heavy snowpack melting slowly during the dry summer months, maintaining streamflows for irrigation, fish, recreation and transportation.

Too many questions remain unanswered about any potential climate change to drastically alter how the system is currently run, said Bill McDonald, regional director of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water for irrigation and power generation.

If average precipitation doesn't vary drastically, but shifts from snow to rain, the river poses a completely different water management challenge. In that case, the question becomes whether the region has enough reservoir space to store water for summer and fall, McDonald said.

But if the drought is so deep that it represents a fundamental decline in water, storage is no longer an issue, and having enough water to 看 go around becomes the problem, he said.

Meanwhile, the fight over the region's water supply continues.

Hundreds of applications for new water rights remain unanswered in Washington state alone, leaving irrigators and municipalities alike infuriated and in limbo.

Tribal, commercial and sport fishermen are bemoaning a sharp decline in spring chinook returns this year - now forecast at less than one-fourth the anticipated 250,000 salmon following five years of promising salmon returns.

They contend the decline proves salmon recovery efforts in the Columbia River basin aren't working.

The dismal snowpack also has utilities warning of higher power rates this summer from the resulting low streamflows, though they say there will be enough power to meet demand.

The Columbia River has changed drastically since Meriwether Lewis and William Clark camped on its banks 200 years ago. Since then, water has been treated much like the mining and timber 看 resources that fueled the settlement of the West, Hamlet said. Now, those times are changing.

"As we've seen in the past, there is great resistance to change, and there are people who get hurt," Hamlet said. "But I don't think we have a choice. We can do this in ways to try to solve the problem, but I don't think we can maintain the same way of life.

"I don't think the old rules are going to continue to work for us."

Shannon Dininny, Associated Press
Shrinking Columbia Changing Face of Northwest
Salt Lake Tribune, June 5, 2005

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