Columbia River Facts - Rivers of North America

The Columbia River is a major river in the Pacific Northwestern United States.

Columbia River is one of the most important drainage features in the North West Pacific region. The river is located in British Columbia and flows through several states including Washington and Oregon before draining into the Pacific. The river ecosystem provides a home for many communities of terrestrial and marine plants and animals besides influencing the cultures and economic practices of the riverine communities. The Columbia River has shaped the landscape of the regions through which it flows by flooding, depositing minerals and alluvial soil, and eroding the areas it drains. Features formed by the action of the Columbia River include buttes, braided channels, channeled scablands, gorges, waterfalls, and rapids. Besides the natural features along the river, several humanmade dams for the generation of hydroelectric power have been built. These dams generate almost half of the total hydropower in the US.

4. Physical Description

Columbia River flows from the Columbia Lake and the Rocky Mountains and drains into the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon. The river flows northeast of the Selkirk Mountains before flowing south along the international border between Canada and the US, towards the southwest through Washington, on the Columbian Plateau and finally ends into the Pacific. The rivers flow through four mountain ranges the Selkirk Mountains, Cascade Mountains, coastal mountains, and the Rockies. The discharge of Columbia River into the Pacific is the largest in North and South America. Columbia River covers 1,243 miles making it one of the longest rivers in the US. Sixty tributaries feed the river with the major ones being rivers Snake, Willamette, Deschutes, John Day, and river Umatilla. Columbia River varies in depth with some areas having a depth of 400 ft while others as deep as 1250 ft. The Columbia River basin covers an area of 258,000 square miles making it the fourth largest river basin in the US. The basin covers regions of Idaho, British Columbia, Washington, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada.

3. Historical Significance

The historical significance of the Columbia River spans thousands of years in which humans have interacted with the river ecosystem. Native communities relied on the river ecosystem for food, trade, and transport. The most important fish species was the salmon though other species such as the sturgeon, trout, ooligan, and lamprey were consumed. The fishing communities lived in harmony with the river ecosystem. Major fisheries along the river included the Willamette Falls, the Kettle Falls, and the Celilo Falls. These communities also consumed riverine plants such as Wapato (a tuber) and Camas, as well as terrestrial animals. The coming of Euro-American explorers in the 18th century marked the beginning of a period of change that would have political and economic impacts on the Columbia River ecosystem. The first few years were characterized by increased navigation of the river and fishing activities. Salmon remained the dominant fish species both for domestic and commercial consumption. Other trade items included animal fur. Exploration and navigation of the river led to improved understanding of the river ecosystem and creation of maps for the region. The first people to conduct scientific research at the mouth of the river were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Up to the 19th century, the ecosystem of the river remained largely unaltered.

The coming of the explorers and later the colonialist led to the loss of the main fishing rights for the native communities. These conflicts triggered several 19th-century wars such as the Whitman Massacre and the Yakima War. The development of the river has caused several conflicts among indigenous communities and developers, as well as between developers and the state and environmental bodies. Industrialization and technological developments in the 19th century saw increased development of the river for irrigation, hydropower generation, navigation and flood control. Both public and private individuals set out to control and exploit the potential of the river, which resulted in significant alterations to the natural flow, and stability of the ecosystem. Currently, many dams have been constructed along the Columbia River system with 14 of them on the main stem of the river.

2. Water Quality

The growth of industries and technology has had a profound effect on the quality of the waters of the Columbia River. Exploitation of the river has led to an imbalance in the chemical, physical, biological, and radiological characteristics of its waters. Pollution from human activities contributes majorly to the declining quality and cleanliness of the Columbia River. Assessments by various environmental and conservation bodies have revealed the presence of toxic components within the river including mercury, bacteria such as E. coli, industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, radioactive elements, and agrochemicals washed off from nearby farms. Sources of pollutants include the nuclear project at the Hanford Site and reckless human behavior in handling domestic and industrial waste, mining, agriculture, and urbanization. Pollution has affected the health and water quality of Columbia River and compromised the survival and safety of the river’s ecosystem and poses threats to humans relying on the river’s water and fish resources. The construction of dams along the river has reduced the flow of water and blocked some parts of the river limiting the ability of spawning fish to migrate upstream resulting in their deaths and population decline. The most affected fish species are the salmon and sturgeon.

1. Major Settlements

The Columbia River supports a wide diversity of human settlements since ancient times. Archaeological evidence reveals signs of human occupation in the Columbia River basin for more than 11,000 years. Various groups of native communities settled along the Columbia River basin practicing varied culture and economic activities. Some of these communities include people of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe, Colville, Spokane, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Umatilla, the Walla Walla, Cayuse, and Palouse, the Sinixt people, the Chinook, Molalla, Klickitat, Wentachi, Okanagan people, the Sinkiuse- Columbia people, Sanpoil, and Nespelem people. These communities interacted amongst themselves through trade and fishing activities. The livelihoods of these communities were heavily influenced by the flow of the river and seasonal variations of fish, and therefore, most communities that maintained semi-nomadic lifestyles are shifting now and then following the movement and abundance of fish along the river’s course. The Bridge of the Gods was a significant link between Oregon and the northern and southern communities through which horses were introduced from Mexico around the 18th century. The 19th century saw the arrival of European and non-native explorers, traders, navigators, and colonialists, who eventually influenced the trade, settlement, and development of the river. Currently, most of the native communities have established permanent settlements.

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