The Columbia River is the largest river in volume flowing into the Pacific Ocean from North America. Its headwaters are located in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia and the Clark Fork in the State of Montana, named for William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It flows through the east-central portion of Washington. The last 300 miles (480 km) form the Washington-Oregon state line. It flows into the Pacific Ocean at Ilwaco, Washington and Astoria, Oregon.
For its first 200 miles the Columbia flows north, then bends to the south crossing the international border into the United States where it meets the Clark Fork. The Clark Fork River begins near Butte, Montana and flows through western Montana before entering Pend Oreille Lake . Water draining from the lake forms the Pend Oreille River, which flows across the Idaho panhandle to Washington's northeastern corner where it meets the northern Canadian fork.
The river then runs south-southwest through the Columbia Plateau, changing to a southeasterly direction near the Columbia Basin where the magnificent Gorge at George is located. The Gorge Amphitheater , which looks out over the gorge, is one of the most spectacular 40,000 person concert venue.
The river continues southeast until it passes the Hanford Nuclear Reservation just before it reaches the Snake River. The Columbia then makes a sharp bend to the west were it begins to form the Washington-Oregon border.
Along this section the river cuts through the Cascade Mountains at the Columbia River Gorge. It was here in Hood River County, Oregon that windsurfing was originated. Constant winds of 15 to 35 mph blow through this wide straight gorge.
The Columbia River is the largest river in the world that has no delta. The river continues west with one small north-northwesterly directed stretch near Portland, Vancouver and the confluence with the Willamette River. On this sharp bend the river's flow slows considerably and it drops the sediment that would normally form a delta.
On May 11, 1792, Captain Robert Gray became the first white man to see the Columbia River. Gray traveled to the Pacific Northwest to trade for fur in a privately-owned vessel named Columbia. He named the river after the ship. Gray's discovery of the Columbia established a stronger belief that Americans had more of a "right" to the Oregon Country, which was also claimed by Russians, British, Spanish, and other nations.
Lewis and Clark's overland expedition explored the vast, unmapped lands west of the Missouri River. On the last stretch of their expedition they traveled down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. The expedition led the way in settling the west.
In 1825 on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company Dr. John McLoughlin established Fort Vancouver (currently Vancouver, Washington) on the banks of the Columbia to headquarter fur trading in the region. The fort was by far the largest western settlement of its time. Every year ships would come from London (via the Pacific) to drop off supplies and trade goods in exchange for the furs. For many settlers the fort became the last stop on the Oregon Trail to buy supplies and land before starting their homestead. Because of its access to the Columbia river Fort Vancouver's influence reached from Alaska to California and from the Rocky Mountains to the Hawaiian Islands.
- Roll on, Columbia, roll on, roll on, Columbia, roll on
- Your power is turning our darkness to dawn
Roll on, Columbia, roll on. –Woody Guthrie
Nearly half of all hydroelectricity in the United States comes from the Columbia and its tributaries. The largest of the 150 hydroelectric projects, the Grand Coulee Dam and the Chief Joseph Dam, are also the largest in the United States. The Grand Coulee Dam is the third largest hydroelectric dam the world. The dams also provide a secondary benefit in flood control and irrigation.
On its north-south stretch through Eastern Washington, the Columbia spans a large desert created by the Cascade Mountains' rain shadow. The dams provide water for the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, one of the most extensive irrigation projects in the western United States. The project provides water to over 500,000 acres (2,000 km²) of fertile but arid lands in central Washington State. Water from the project has transformed the region from a wasteland barely able to produce subsistence levels of dry-land wheat crops to a major agricultural center. Important crops include apples, potatoes, alfalfa, wheat, corn (maize), barley, hops, beans, and sugar beets.
Although the dams provide clear, renewable electricity they do drastically alter the landscape and ecosystem of the river. At one time the Columbia was one of the top salmon producing river systems in the world. The presence of these dams coupled with over fishing has played a major role in the reduction of salmon populations. Fish ladders were installed to help the fish journey to spawning waters. Additionally each dams' reservoirs are closely regulated by the Bonneville Power Administration to insure one dam is not "hoarding" water so salmon and other fish have adequate habitat.
There are contaminants that have seeped into the Columbia River from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. This Reservation was established in 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project, located along the river in south eastern Washington on 586 mile² (1,520 km²) of some of the most fertile land in North America, but at the time of establishment the area was considered a wasteland. The site served as a plutonium production complex with nine nuclear reactors and related facilities. Most of the facilities were shutdown in the 1960s. The site is currently under control of the Department of Energy, and is currently a CERCLA, or superfund site. The superfund cleanup is expected to be completed in 2030.
There are also many more major problems that the Columbia River has, from raw sewage dumpage, to hundreds of tons of slag dumped daily. Because of the pollution problems, some people would say the future health of the Columbia River does not look good. However, newspapers such as The Oregonian are calling attention to the problems of rivers. There is hope that humans, industries, and safe water can be made to co-exist.
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Last updated: 08-17-2005 09:50:10