Yesterday found me speaking at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon. It was a fulfilling moment – sharing the story of the impact of Columbia River Treaty storage dams located in the headwaters region, with people who live at its mouth. After my talk, I drove out to the edge of the continent, where the ocean waves brush up against the Columbia’s powerful outflow.
The winds were howling at the beach. I looked south at the Cascades, rising along the horizon. I looked north and saw the “South Jetty” an impressive breakwater first constructed in 1885-95 and enhanced over the years. The jetty’s job is to control the interaction of surf, tides and river outflow. Another jetty does the same work on the north side of the Columbia. The shipping and fishing industries on the lower Columbia River designed these jetties to narrow the current and help flush the river sediments straight out to sea. No shifting sands here!
A remarkable U.S. Geological Survey time-lapsed film demonstrates how a river naturally deposits sediment when it reaches the sea. You can watch the Elwah River at work here. Scientists now studying the result of dam removal on the Elwah have discovered that the river has already flushed an estimated 90% of the sediment once trapped behind the dams. The biggest surprise has been the amount of aquatic habitat these shifting sands have created. You can read more about the liberation of the Elwah River in this excellent article.
No such restoration is imminently in store for the Columbia. Too many cities, people and industry would be heavily impacted if the dams were all removed, the sediments stored up behind them flushed out to sea. Changes to the Columbia River Treaty could, however, allow more of the spring flood waters to flow naturally, while still keeping communities safe. Liberating more spring flow would be good for fish, and for the river.
I climbed up the viewing platform and stood in the howling wind, watching a freighter pass through the channel created by the north and south jetties. Look closely and you will see it on the far horizon.