In the past month, I have twice threaded my way east through the Selkirk and Purcell mountains to travel across the mysterious landscape of river-beginnings. In the Rocky Mountain Trench, the Kootenay River starts on the West Slope of the Rockies, tumbling down to wind along the broad valley. Here, too, begins the great Columbia River, burbling up out of the sedge and wetland grasses at the south end of Columbia Lake. The Columbia flows north along the trench, making a tight u-turn through the Rockies, Purcell and Selkirk ranges to head toward the international boundary. The Kootenay flows south, into Montana and Idaho, then north again into B.C. and the Kootenay Lake system, before joining the Columbia.
Either Columbia Lake, or the spring that feeds it have long been understood to be the source of the Columbia River. On my most recent visit to the headwater landscape, I learned something new, thanks to Ed Gillmor, a professional hydrologist (retired) now living near Columbia Lake. Less than a mile separates the two bodies of water at a place called Canal Flats. This geographic curiosity resulted in two historic industrial ideas: 1. Dig a canal between the two. 2. Divert the Kootenay into the Columbia, thus keeping the bulk of its water above the boundary. More here about that.
Gillmor simply wanted to know more about the shape and tilt of the geography. In an effort to confirm a local understanding that water from the Kootenay flows north underground to feed Columbia Lake, he measured daily historical water levels in both places, to calculate the “hydraulic gradient.” The result of his study can be found here.
To summarize, Gillmor found that at Canal Flats, Aquifer 816, a shallow underground passage for water from the Kootenay River, provides more than half of Columbia Lake’s volume each year. That’s right. More than half. Simply put, the Kootenay River has now been confirmed as both tributary and source, for the fourth largest river by volume in North America.
Tracing the angular shape of the Rockies, I tooled along in my beloved Toyota hybrid. The headwater landscape has a remarkable, hidden ability to create something extraordinary (the Columbia!) out of humble, shared beginnings. I pulled over and scrambled up a steep bank. There, I looked out over the gushing wetlands at the south end of Columbia Lake. In a gesture of generosity, Aquifir 816 replenishes these wetlands every day, nourished by the nascent Kootenay River. The Columbia’s second-largest tributary originates in mountains on the right in the photo.
Burbling up from another shared aquifer comes a growing awareness of the transboundary Columbia River. My own research and study, conducted for years in near-isolation, has become but a hidden wellspring, compared with the rising public interest in the Columbia River Treaty. Almost daily, I hear of another project, another curiosity, another hope or dream for the great river of the west. A renewed treaty is being re-negotiated now between the U.S. and Canada. The potential for salmon to spawn again as far as Columbia Lake becomes a broad hope. People are finding many ways to love the river: cycling, kayaking or photographing its length.
Long may the shared aquifer of ideas flow across the border, creating One River.