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Life-Giving Columbia Threatened by Growth, Drought

The river ties the Pacific Northwest together, but managing its resources plays various users' demands against one another.

June 05, 2005|Shannon Dininny | Associated Press Writer

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 that 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 is 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 native peoples and the millions of white 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 the many conflicts that smolder and simmer around the river are heating up.

A multiyear drought -- in tandem with significant growth -- has parched communities and farms. Dismal snowpack will leave streams and rivers low, once again raising the specter of a fish-versus-power debate.

Jim Wells, a weathered fisherman on the Oregon coast, worries about the future for three sons who are trying to follow him into the business. One has already opted for an engineering career, although 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."

You'll hear other worries from imperiled users throughout the river's vast drainage: 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.

From dam removal to dredging, water spills to water rights, debates rage about how one of the nation's largest rivers should be managed.

"Whoever controls this river and its resources controls so much of the wealth of this region," said Katrine Barber, an assistant history professor at Portland State University in Oregon. "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%, increasing demand for water and power. That growth continues today, even as parts of the Columbia River basin enter a 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. Far worse conditions loom in Washington state, where the snowpack and water supply are the worst since records have been kept.

The debate over climate change tends to get hung up on whether the future will be "warm and dry" or "warm and wet," all the while missing the point that it's simply 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 stream flows for irrigation, fish, recreation and transportation.

More rain could mean more hydropower in the wet season, but it poses problems for managing the system for those other needs, Hamlet said.

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 go around becomes the problem, he said.

"If we confront longer, deeper periods of drought than we have become familiar with in the last 100 years of recordkeeping, then a premium is going to be placed on making more efficient use of the supplies that you have," he said. "The data is just not yet clear enough to indicate to us that we really have a change that is upon us."

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

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

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