Report Card on Estuary's Health
by Associated Press
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Ten years after work began in earnest on improving the health of the lower Columbia River, a new report card shows mixed results suggesting that significant work remains to be done to preserve the ecosystem from Bonneville Dam to the Pacific Ocean.
Combined, the states of Oregon and Washington, and the federal government have spent about $7.2 million since 1995 on efforts to improve conditions in the river's estuary -- the mouth of the river, where the ocean's tide meets the freshwater current.
The estuary's water quality and habitat have long been threatened by pollution and development, hurting the fish and wildlife that depend on the river.
Oregon and Washington formed the Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership in 1995 to address problems, setting ambitious goals, including restoration of endangered species in the region, decreasing pollution and preserving habitat.
In the report card issued by the partnership on Wednesday, the group gave themselves a "C" for habitat preservation, noting that more than 9,200 acres of wetlands along the river have been protected and restored since 1995 -- without creating any centralized system for tracking other habitat that may have been lost during that same time.
And while signs point to a recovery for the bald eagle population along the river, the Columbian white-tailed deer population has not made the same gains, the report card said, with deer numbers remaining at less than half of their 1995 population.
Researchers say the deer population's continued losses are due to a variety of factors, including river-area habitat loss due to logging and brush removal and development near the river for beef production, cottonwood plantations, alder harvests and marinas.
Additionally, the health of the river's chinook salmon population is difficult to trace, the report card said. The fish population -- which migrate to the Pacific to mature, then return to the Columbia to spawn -- is still far below historic numbers, when about 500,000 wild fish migrated up the Columbia each year.
But those numbers, boosted by hatchery fish returns, have trended upwards in the past few years, though researchers warn that might be due to temporarily favorable ocean conditions, which are subject to change.
One of the hardest areas to track is pollution, according to the report card, thanks to a lack of information and data collected over time on the lower Columbia River's water quality. The estuary partnership has begun more extensive monitoring, to better survey the kinds of pollutants in the river, and their effect on humans, fish and wildlife.
But preliminary data show that water temperatures in the lower Columbia have continued to increase -- bad news for native aquatic species, whose immune systems can be weakened as water temperatures rise, increasing their susceptibility to disease.
And the partnership has also traced some emerging contaminants, like the flame retardant PBDE, which is widely used as an additive to prevent fires in electronic devices, furniture and textiles. Evidence has suggested that exposure to PBDEs may be a health hazard for both humans and animals.
The report card did highlight two positives for the partnership and the river. The group graded itself highly for outreach work with local schools, and for increasing volunteer opportunities up and down the lower Columbia for the community at large.
At a press conference Wednesday to release the report card, Gov. Ted Kulongoski called the estuary, "a bellwether of how we are doing in the Pacific Northwest -- environmentally, socially and economically."
Kulongoski congratulated the partnership on what he called "an impressive amount of on-the-ground restoration work in such a short period of time."
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