The Columbia originates in two lakes that lie
between the Continental Divide and Selkirk mountain ranges in British
Columbia. The river's course is convoluted. It flows north for its
first 200 or more miles, then it turns south and runs to the international
border. Within the United States, the river courses southwest and
skirts one of the Columbia Plateau's massive lava flows, then it turns
to the southeast, cutting a dramatic gorge in the volcanic shield
to its junction with the westward flowing Snake River. From its confluence
with the Snake, the Columbia runs nearly due west to the Pacific Ocean.
Fifteen percent of the basin -- 39,000 square miles -- lies in Canada
and the largest of the river's major tributaries is the Snake River,
itself more than 1,100 miles long. The Columbia River Basin includes
a diverse ecology that ranges from temperate rain forests to semi-arid
plateaus, with precipitation levels from 110 inches to 6 inches per
Most important, perhaps, the Columbia is a snow-charged
river that seasonally fluctuates in volume. Its annual average discharge
is 160 million acre-feet of water, with the highest volumes between
April and September, the lowest from December to February. From its
source at 2,650 feet above sea level, the river drops an average of
more than 2 feet per mile, but in some sections it falls nearly 5
feet per mile.
The Columbia has ten major tributaries:
the Kootenay, Okanagan, Wenatchee, Spokane, Yakima, Snake, Deschutes,
Willamette, Cowlitz, and Lewis rivers. Its most important tributary,
the Snake, flows across a semi-arid plain and runs through the deepest
gorge in North America, Hell's Canyon -- 7,900 feet deep. The Deschutes
and Willamette rivers drain basins south of the Columbia, while the
Yakima, Lewis, and Cowlitz rivers drain areas on the north side of
An especially dramatically scenic portion of
the river cuts through the Cascade Mountain Range, creating the 100-mile-long
and 3,000-foot-deep Columbia River Gorge. Before massive dam building
the 20th century, the river plunged over basalt cliffs and rapids
in the Gorge, but today the engineered Columbia provides a nearly
sea-level pathway through the mountain range to eastern regions of
Oregon and Washington. The reach of tide extends to the western end
of the Gorge, a little more than 100 miles from the ocean. This lower
river section is flat, falling less than one half-foot per mile. It
includes, Sauvie Island, one of the largest river islands in North
Uses of the Columbia
The Columbia River Basin is the most hydroelectrically
developed river system in the world. More than 400 dams -- 11 run-of-the-river
dams on the mainstem -- and hundreds of major and modest structures
on tributaries block river flows and tap a large portion of the Columbia's
generating capacity: more than 21 million kilowatts. Rock Island Dam
on the middle river was the first major hydropower producer on the
Columbia. Completed in 1932, Rock Island Dam is small compared to
the behemoths -- Bonneville and Grand Coulee -- that the federal government
completed respectively in 1938 and 1941. The last dams built on the
Columbia came on line during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1973, Canada
completed the last of the mainstem dams, Mica Dam on the upper river.
The dams created large reservoirs that provide flood control and water
for vast irrigation systems on the Columbia Plateau, and with the
completion of four dams on the lower Snake River during the 1970s
the engineers strung together a series of slackwater lakes that allowed
barges to navigate more than 465 miles from the Pacific to the inland
port of Lewiston, Idaho. The hydroelectric projects connect the entire
region through a network of interties and relay stations into a powergrid
system. A treaty with Canada in 1964 and creation of the NW-SW Intertie
with California made the network inter-regional and international.
Dams on the Columbia have contributed significantly
to steep declines in historically strong anadromous fish runs. Between
the 1860s and 1960s, commercial fisheries annually harvested millions
of pounds of fish, especially five species of salmonids. The largest
catch came from the estuary and lower river, where fishers used seines
and gillnets. On the middle river, native fishers have used dipnets,
hooks, and setnets. Since the 1950s, the combined consequences of
dams, increased ocean fishing, deterioration of stream and river habitats,
and changing river conditions have made the Columbia less and less
habitable for anadromous fish. Ever since the early 1970s, the fish
catch has dramatically declined, with hatchery-raised species making
up more than 80 percent of commercially caught salmon in the river.
Fish hatcheries began operation in the Basin in 1877 and became a
major mitigation of dam-caused salmon declines during the late 20th
century. In 1992, the government listed the native Snake River Sockeye
salmon as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and in 1998
Willamette steelhead joined the list of endangered fish.
Because of the 40-foot-deep channel in the lower river and
slackwater lakes on the middle river, ocean freighters can navigate up the Columbia and
Willamette rivers to Portland and barges can transport goods to the interior. Towboats
push the barges up through navigation locks on Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day, McNary,
and four Snake River dams, carrying diesel fuel and other commodities upriver, grain, wood
chips, agricultural products, and lumber downriver.
As early as the 1870s, agriculture benefited
from Columbia River water. By the 1920s, major irrigation projects
along the Columbia and tributaries, such as the Yakima, Wenatchee
and Umatilla rivers operated with the benefit of federal programs.
During the 1930s and 1940s, however, the construction of the big dams,
especially Grand Coulee Dam on the upper river and McNary Dam on the
middle river, greatly increased irrigated agriculture on the Columbia
Plateau. In 1948, the Columbia Basin Project began transporting Columbia
River water by canal to more than 600 thousand acres on farms in central
Washington. This project requires massive pumping stations, a labyrinth
of canals, and enormous center-pivot sprinkler systems. Major irrigated
crops include alfalfa, potatoes, mint, beets, beans, orchard fruit,
and wine grapes.
Recreation on the Columbia began early in the settlement era,
with steamboat excursions up the Columbia from Portland, especially to the western end of
the Columbia River Gorge. Sport fishing for salmon and steelhead developed as early as the
1920s and expanded with the increased use of power boats. Sailing, day cruising, swimming,
water skiing, canoeing, and other water sports have become commonplace on the river since
World War II. During the 1980s, sailboarders discovered the high and steady winds in the
Gorge along the middle river. Hood River, Stevenson, and The Dalles became internationally
known destinations for windsurfing. Protectionists, who included many hikers and outdoor
enthusiasts, organized a campaign to preserve the Columbia River Gorge's scenic beauty by
successfully encouraging Congress to pass the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
Act in 1986. The legislation mandates environmental protection through agreements between
federal, state, municipal, and county governments in the Columbia River Gorge.
The earliest archaeological evidence of
human habitation in the Columbia River Basin dates to 10,000 B.P.
[Before Present Time] The earliest groups lived by fishing, hunting
large mammals, and gathering plant foods. Cultures in the proto-historic
and historic periods varied greatly along the river. On the lower
Columbia groups lived in large multi-family long houses, while on
the middle and upper river sections, people moved seasonally and lived
in smaller groups. Native fishers took salmon at Willamette Falls
on the Willamette River and at Kettle Falls on the upper Columbia.
Celilo Falls on the middle river was the most important native fishery.
Thousands gathered there during the spring and summer fish runs to
harvest chinook salmon and trade. In the early 19th century, Pacific
Fur Company trader Alexander Ross called Celilo "the great emporium
or mart of the Columbia."
The Columbia River first appeared
on European maps in the early 17th century as "River of the West,"
when a Spanish maritime explorer Martin de Auguilar located a major
river near the 42nd parallel. Cartographers often labeled the "River
of the West" as an estuary to the mythical Straits of Anian,
or the Northwest Passage and located it anywhere from the 42nd to
the 50th parallel. In 1765, British Major Robert Rogers called the
river "Ouragon" -- later spelled "Oregon" by Jonathan
Carver in 1778 -- as a derivative name referring to the "ouisconsink"
river in present-day Wisconsin. The first confirmation of its location
came in 1775 when Bruno de Hezeta described a river estuary at the
Columbia's correct latitude. In May 1792, American trader Captain
Robert Gray sailed across the bar in the first documented Euroamerican
visit to the river. British explorer George Vancouver sent Lt. William
Broughton up the river more than 100 miles in October 1792, and Broughton
produced the first detailed map of the lower river. Meriwether Lewis
and William Clark explored the river in 1805-1806 for the United States.
Northwest Company fur trader David Thompson made the first map of
the full river in 1811-1812. After the War of 1812, England and the
United States jointly occupied the Columbia River Basin territory.
Britain's Hudson's Bay Company [HBC] established
a fur-trading hegemony in the region and built a headquarters post
at Fort Vancouver in 1825. HBC trappers and traders spread throughout
the Columbia River Basin and beyond, bringing furs back to Fort Vancouver
for shipment to England. Americans returned to the region as settlers
during the 1840s, when overland migrants came to the Columbia and
Willamette river valleys on the Oregon Trail. In 1846, the Oregon
Country south of the 49th Parallel became United States territory
by treaty with Great Britain. Oregon achieved statehood in 1859, Washington
and Montana in 1889, and Idaho in 1890.
During the late nineteenth century, capitalists developed natural
resource and transportation industries on the Columbia. From 1860 to 1883, Portland's
hegemonic Oregon Steam Navigation Company dominated steamboat transportation on the lower
and middle river. R. D. Hume established the first salmon cannery on the Columbia in 1866,
and by 1883 forty canneries operated on the river, packing 634,000 48-pound cases for
export. During the period 1880-1900, orchardists established operations at Hood River and
Wenatchee on the Columbia and along the Yakima and Okanogan rivers. Engineering projects
on the river began with navigation canals at Cascade Locks in 1896 and at The
Dalles-Celilo in 1915.
Twentieth-century alterations on the Columbia
River dwarfed the early dredging and canal building. In 1932, private
power companies completed Rock Island Dam on the middle river. In
1933, the federal government began work on Bonneville Dam on the lower
river and Grand Coulee Dam on the upper river. By 1975, eleven dams
stood on the mainstem, with many additional dams on major tributaries.
The hydroelectric resources contributed directly to waging World War
II. Electricity from the Columbia River powered aluminum plants, shipyards,
and the development of the plutonium atomic bomb at Hanford Engineering
Works near Richland, Washington. The hydroelectricity generated on
the Columbia has stimulated significant industrial growth in the Pacific
Northwest since World War II.