Columbia (river)

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Columbia River Basin

The Columbia River is one of the most dominant environmental features of the Pacific Northwest. Beginning high in the mountains of southeastern British Columbia, the Columbia River flows 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) through alpine and subalpine environments, montane forests, lava fields, semiarid grasslands, and low-elevation rainforests before entering the Pacific Ocean.

Draining more than 671,000 square kilometers (259,100 square miles), the Columbia River Basin is the fourth largest river basin in the United States. It encompasses seven states (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah) and one Canadian province (British Columbia), more than a dozen Indian reservations, and numerous local jurisdictions. This complex physical and jurisdictional landscape makes managing the Great River of the West an exceptional challenge.

Native and Non-Native Settlement

Archaeologists have found evidence of human occupation of the Columbia River Basin dating back more than 10,000 years, though many of the basin's Native peoples argue that they have always been in the region. The Columbia River was and still is a central feature in the life of Native peoples, providing food, water, and transportation. Salmon was a keystone resource, providing a significant percentage of their protein; it was also an important trade item. Despite thousands of years of heavy use, under Native peoples' stewardship the Columbia River remained a diverse, highly productive ecosystem well into the nineteenth century.

Non-Native peoples began moving into the basin in notable numbers during the 1840s and 1850s, pushing Native peoples onto reservations and imposing a radically different management regime on the river. Early non-Native use of the river paralleled that of the Indians'fishing for salmon, using the river as a transportation conduit, locating settlements on the flat, fertile floodplains. But as technology evolved and the basin's population expanded in the latter half of the nineteenth century, demands on the river greatly increased. Irrigation ditches, hydroelectric dams, commercial fisheries, the dredging of navigation channels, and the input of pollutants had all effected major changes in the river's physical and biological characteristics by the early twentieth century.

While many of the Columbia's tributaries were dammed and ditched in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was not until the 1930s that the mainstem of the Columbia was developed. Responding to the Great Depression, the U.S. government built Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams, the latter of which was the largest dam in the world at the time and is still the country's largest single power producer. Today there are more than 400 dams in the basin, including 14 on the mainstemprojects that generate an average of 12,000 megawatts a year, accounting for about 40 percent of the United States' hydroelectric power and for up to 75 percent in the Pacific Northwest. The total hydropower production of the Columbia system roughly equals 20 nuclear power plants running full-time.

Impacts of Dams

The dams on the Columbia River and its major tributaries form the backbone of the Pacific Northwest's economy, providing power to homes and industry, controlling floodwaters, irrigating hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland, and forming an extensive navigation system. However, these benefits have come at an exceptionally high environmental cost.

Annual runs of Columbia River salmon have declined from an estimated 8 to 16 million to an average of fewer than 1 million, and a dozen stocks have been listed as either threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. In addition to blocking access to spawning grounds, dams alter the seasonal flow of the river, prevent juvenile salmon from migrating downstream to the ocean, increase the abundance of fish predators, and change water quality by raising the temperature and increasing the amount of nitrogen in the water.

Though dams are a major factor in the decline of salmon, they are not the only one. Overfishing, logging, irrigation withdrawals, urban pollution, channelization , road construction, the introduction of nonnative fish, and other activities have also contributed to the decline of salmon and other native fish populations.

Institutional Complexities

While river management in the Columbia River Basin historically focused on the creation of economic benefits (e.g., hydroelectric power and flood control), the focus in recent years has shifted to ecosystem management and restoration. Salmon have been at the center of this important shift in management philosophy, but a variety of obstacles have stood in the way of effective restoration.

Some argue that one of the most significant obstacles to successful integrated ecosystem management is institutional fragmentation. The Columbia River Basin is under the jurisdiction of two countries, several states, more than a dozen tribes, and numerous local agencies. Even among federal river managers there is a substantial amount of institutional fragmentation. The Bonneville Power Administration, for instance, markets power produced at dams built and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, while the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission oversees nonfederal dams (those built by private companies and public utility districts).

The National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manage the river's fish and oversee the implementation of the Endangered Species Act; the former manages marine fish and wildlife, the latter manages fresh-water fish and wildlife. The Environmental Protection Agency is charged with implementing the Clean Water Act, ensuring that federal agencies and other entities meet water quality standards in the Columbia and its tributaries. The Bureau of Indian Affairs ensures that tribal rights are recognized, especially the 1855 treaty right to take fish at usual and accustomed fishing places. The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management manage a large portion of the basin's land, overseeing logging, grazing, recreation, and other land-based activities, many of which have direct impacts on aquatic habitats.

Finally, the Northwest Power Planning Council, a unique regional agency that is neither federal nor state-based but rather somewhere in between, helps plan power production, energy conservation, and fish and wildlife restoration activities throughout the basin. Add in the dozens of state agencies, tribal agencies, and local agencies, and one gets a picture of the complexity of the institutional landscape and the challenges river managers face in trying to restore the region's fish and wildlife populations to healthy levels.

It took 150 years for the health of the Columbia River to decline to the condition it is in today. Hundreds of dams impound the river and its tributaries, more than half a dozen fish species are at risk of extinction, and pollutants ranging from human sewage to radioactive wastes flow through the river and into the ocean. Private, local, state, and federal management activities, while undoubtedly providing many benefits, are directly responsible for this state of affairs. The recent shift to restoration and ecosystem management is largely in response to this decline in ecosystem health, but these new management approaches are still in their infancies and face many difficult challenges in the years to come. Only time will tell if they will be as socially and politically successful as more traditional management approaches.

see also Army Corps of Engineers, U.S.; Bureau of Reclamation, U.S.; Clean Water Act; Dams; Endangered Species Act; Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S.; Fisheries, Marine; Hydroelectric Power; Lewis, Meriwether and William Clark; Planning and Management, History of Water Resources; Planning and Management, Water Resources; River Basin Planning; Salmon Decline and Recovery; Transportation.

Cain Allen


Blumm, Michael C., and Brett M. Swift, eds. A Survey of Columbia River Basin Water Law Institutions and Policies: Report to the Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission. Portland, OR: Northwestern School of Law, 1997. Available online at <>.

Cone, Joseph, and Sandy Ridlington, eds. The Northwest Salmon Crisis: A Documentary History. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1996.

Dietrich, William. Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995.

Federal Caucus. Conservation of Columbia Basin Fish: Building a Conceptual Recovery Plan. Spokane, WA: Federal Caucus, December 1999. Available online at <>.

Independent Scientific Group. Return to the River: Restoration of Salmonid Fishes in the Columbia River Ecosystem. Portland, OR: Northwest Power Planning Council, 2000. Available online at

Lang, William L., and Robert C. Carriker, eds. Great River of the West: Essays on the Columbia River. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.

White, Richard. The Organic Machine: Remaking of the Columbia River. New York: Hill & Wang, 1995.

Internet Resources

Center for Columbia River History. <>.

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COLUMBIA RIVER EXPLORATION AND SETTLEMENT. For nearly two centuries before Europeans first saw the Columbia River, geographers eagerly theorized that a Great River of the West penetrated deep into the center of the North American continent. A number of speculative maps variously located this river between forty-two and fifty degrees north latitude and connected it to the mythical Northwest Passage, thus making it part of a navigable water route between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. No easy water route across the continent existed, but the belief that whoever claimed this river would control the commerce of North America eventually proved correct.

The Columbia was first described and mapped during a period of intense imperial interest in the North Pacific, when Europeans and Americans sought to establish commercial and territorial claims in the region. Spanish captain Bruno Hezeta first observed a large estuary in 1775 near forty-six degrees latitude, where the Columbia meets the Pacific, and his report soon attracted the attention of English, Russian, French, and American interests. Hezeta's claim that he had seen the mouth of a great river, and not a large bay, was eventually confirmed on 11 May 1792, when an American trader, Captain Robert Gray, sailed across the river's treacherous bar and into the fresh waters of the Columbia, which he named in honor of his ship, the Columbia Rediviva. Under the direction of British captain George Vancouver, Lieutenant William Broughton sailed more than one hundred miles up the Columbia in October 1792 and produced the first detailed map of the lower river. The American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark described the Columbia from its confluence with the Snake River to the Pacific in 1805 and 1806, and six years later the North West Company fur trader David Thompson mapped the entire twelve-hundred-mile river from its source in the Canadian Rockies.

Jointly claimed by Great Britain and the United States, the Columbia River basin became an important arena for the international fur trade. Strongly influenced by established Native markets and distribution networks along the Columbia, the trade all but collapsed in the 1830s due to overexploitation by the Hudson's Bay Company. Weakened by disease and increasingly unable to control the terms of their encounters with outsiders, Native communities were quickly displaced by the thousands of overland migrants who poured across the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. While this new settlement depended on the advice of ex-trappers turned guides, who provided detailed information on interior waterways, it also benefited from the work of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes and the U.S. Exploring Expedition, which mapped the Columbia Basin in 1841.

The presence of so many new arrivals from the United States not only replaced the fur trade economy with one based on agriculture, fishing, lumber, and mining, but also transformed the jointly administered territory into an exclusively American province. Basing its claims on the explorations of Gray and Lewis and Clark, the United States negotiated a treaty with Great Britain in 1846 that divided the Columbia River at the forty-ninth parallel. All lands to the south became part of United States, eventually forming the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and part of Montana.


Allen, John L. "The Canadian Fur Trade and the Exploration of Western North America, 1797–1851." In North American Exploration. Edited by John Logan Allen. Vol. 3: A Continent Comprehended. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Gibson, James R. "The Exploration of the Pacific Coast." In North American Exploration. Edited by John Logan Allen. Vol. 2: A Continent Defined. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Meinig, D. W. The Great Columbia Plain: A Historical Geography, 1805–1910. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968. Reissued in 1995 with a forward by William Cronon and new preface from the author.

Mark DavidSpence

See alsoColumbia River Treaty ; Exploration of America, Early ; Explorations and Expeditions: British, Spanish, U.S. ; Geological Survey, U.S. ; Geophysical Explorations ; Lewis and Clark Expedition ; Oregon Trail ; Oregon Treaty of 1846 ; Vancouver Explorations ; Western Exploration .

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Columbia, river, c.1,210 mi (1,950 km) long, rising in Columbia Lake, SE British Columbia, Canada. It flows first NW in the Rocky Mt. Trench, then hooks sharply about the Selkirk Mts. to flow S through Upper Arrow Lake and Lower Arrow Lake and receive the Kootenai River (spelled Kootenay in Canada) before entering the United States after a course of 465 mi (748 km). It continues S through Washington and just below the mouth of the Spokane River is forced by lava beds to make a great bend westward before veering south again, running the while entrenched in a narrow valley through the Columbia Plateau. Its chief tributary, the Snake River, joins it just before it turns west again. The Columbia then forms part of the Washington-Oregon border before entering the Pacific Ocean through a wide estuary W of Portland, Oreg.

The Columbia River has created regal gorges by cutting through the Cascades and the Coast Ranges; it is fed by the Cowlitz and Willamette rivers, which drain the Puget trough between those ranges. Grand Coulee, now a reservoir in the Columbia basin project, was a former stream channel of the Columbia River. It was created during the last ice age when the Columbia's course was blocked by ice, forcing it to cut a new channel through the Columbia Plateau. When the ice receded the river resumed its former channel.

Settlement and Human Impact

The Columbia River, commanding one of the great drainage basins of North America (c.259,000 sq mi/670,800 sq km), was visited by Robert Gray, an American explorer, in 1792 and is named for his vessel, the Columbia. It was entered by a British naval officer, William R. Broughton, later the same year. Long before this time Native Americans were fishing salmon from the river; today fish are still caught there, but heavy settlement along the river and its tributaries, the construction of dams, and human use have reduced the salmon runs.

The first whites to arrive overland were the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the fur traders (notably David Thompson of the North West Company and the founders of Astoria). The river was the focus of the American settlement that created Oregon, and the river was itself sometimes called the Oregon River or the River of the West. Irrigation was begun early, and some tributaries were used to water cropland and orchards, as in the valleys of the Wenatchee and Yakima rivers.

After 1932 plans gradually developed to use the Columbia River to its ultimate possibility, and the Columbia basin project was established. Its purpose is to establish flood control, which would alleviate the destruction seen in the Columbia's greatest flood, that of 1894, and somewhat lesser but damaging floods, such as that of 1948; to improve navigation; to extend irrigation in order to make optimum use of the water of the Columbia and its tributaries; and to produce hydroelectric power to supply the Pacific Northwest.

There are six federal and five nonfederal dams on the Columbia River. Grand Coulee Dam (the key unit of the Columbia basin project) and Chief Joseph Dam, on the river's upper course, provide power, flood control, and irrigation. Priest Rapids, Wanapum, Rock Island, Rocky Reaches, and Wells dams are on the middle course; all are among the largest nonfederal hydroelectric facilities in the United States. Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day, and McNary dams, on the lower course, were designed as power, flood control, and navigation projects; these dams provide a 328-mi (528-km) slack-water navigation channel up the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean to the Snake River. With these federal projects and nonfederal dams on the Columbia, hydroelectric plants on the river have a potential generating capacity of about 21 million kW. The development of hydroelectric power has had a significant effect on the economic pattern of the Pacific Northwest.


See J. V. Krutilla, The Columbia River Treaty; The Economics of an International River Basin Development (1967); J. E. Allen and M. Burns, Cataclysms of the Columbia (1987); W. Dietrich, The Great Columbia River (1995); R. White, The Organic Machine (1995).

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COLUMBIA RIVER TREATY, a waterpower and water storage agreement between the United States and Canada to run for sixty years, signed in Washington, D.C., on 17 January 1961 and ratified by both nations. Under the terms of the treaty, the United States completed construction of the Libby Dam on the Kootenay branch of the Columbia River (northern Montana), and Canada built dams at Arrow Lake, Duncan Lake, Lower Bonnington, and Mica Creek in British Columbia. Water-power and water storage developments supply hydroelectric power to the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana and also to the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta.


Craig, Gerald M. The United States and Canada. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Martin, Lawrence. The Presidents and the Prime Ministers: Washington and Ottawa Face to Face: The Myth of Bilateral Bliss, 1867–1982. Toronto and Garden City, N.Y.: Double day, 1982.

Thomas RobsonHay/a. g.

See alsoCanada, Relations with ; Canadian-American Waterways ; Treaties with Foreign Nations .

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Columbia River Waterway in sw Canada and nw USA. It flows from Columbia Lake in British Columbia, Canada, through Washington and Oregon, USA, and enters the Pacific Ocean n of Portland, Oregon. It has one of the largest drainage basins on the continent, c.668,220sq km (258,000sq mi). Length: 1953km (1214mi).