• Fish Tale
    The Bonneville Dam is part of the border between Oregon and Washington.

    Photograph by Stuart Thornton

    River Writer
    During the 1930s, American singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie was hired by the Bonneville Power Administration to write songs promoting the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River. During the month-long job, he penned classics including Roll On Columbia, Grand Coulee Dam, and Pastures of Plenty.

    Fish Cam
    See what fish are swimming through the Bonneville Dam. The Bonneville Dam Fish Camera updates with a new photo every 20 seconds.

    By Stuart Thornton

    Friday, January 21, 2011

    The  Columbia River used to be a wild waterway full of frothing whitewater and robust salmon populations.

    Now, the 1,954-kilometer (1,214-mile) river has been domesticated: Bridges seem to clamp down on the Columbia like yokes and, more importantly, a series of dams and locks has chopped the once mighty Columbia into a series of placid reservoirs.

    The first major manmade change to the Columbia River occurred in 1938, with the completion of the Bonneville Dam. The Bonneville Dam is actually a series of several dams, and links the states of Oregon and Washington. Located in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Bonneville Dam was built for two reasons: to provide residents of the Pacific Northwest with electricity and to make the waterway more navigable for boat traffic.

    Other dams were erected along the course of the Columbia, including the massive Grand Coulee Dam in Washington, which is the largest concrete structure in the United States. Currently, there are 11 major dams on the main stem of the Columbia River.

    The dams on the Columbia and its tributaries account for 50 to 65 percent of the area’s electricity generation, and they produce the power using less coal and natural gas than other power generators. The manmade structures also make it possible for barges and boats to travel 465 miles up the Columbia River, from the Pacific Ocean all the way to Lewiston, Idaho.

    Salmon Runs

    Despite the benefits to human residents in the area, the dams have wreaked havoc on the river’s ecosystem, especially the Columbia’s salmon. Jeff Hickman, hunter and organizer for the Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club, says that it’s hard to determine exactly how many salmon were in the river before the construction of the dams, because records were not taken until after the structures were already in place.

    “The Columbia River historically was the most healthy watershed,” Hickman says. “It had the largest population of fish on the planet.”

    The dams transformed the Columbia from a fast-moving waterway to what is basically a handful of reservoirs with slower currents and warmer water.

    “That water temperature not only puts more stress on migrating fish, traveling fish, but also makes a more suitable environment for predatory, invasive fish such as smallmouth bass and walleye and native fish such as the northern pike minnow, which is commonly called the squaw fish,” Hickman says.

    Bob Heinith is the hydro program coordinator for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, an organization that represents the region’s Native American population. According to Heinith, the dams have destroyed fish habitats.

    “We’ve lost about two-thirds of the overall habitat for fish by large storage dams that have cut off passage to upstream areas,” Heinith says.

    Fish Ladders

    At all of the government-owned dams (excluding Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee) fish ladders were constructed so that the adult salmon could bypass the structures and continue upstream to spawn. The fish ladders are like stair steps that water flows down, creating a series of shallow waterfalls. While dams often prove impassable for the fish, the salmon are able to get upstream using these fish ladders.

    Though the adult fishes’ swims upriver to spawn were taken into account when the dams were built, little thought was initially given to the juvenile fish that head downstream toward the ocean.

    The Bonneville Power Administration, which distributes electricity, has implemented several methods to assist the juvenile fishes’ journey downstream. The dams’ turbines have been redesigned so that they are less of a hazard to juvenile fish passing through. Another improvement at Bonneville Dam is a sluiceway that takes the fish away from the turbines entirely and delivers them to the river two miles downstream.

    Heinith believes there is one effort by the Bonneville Power Administration that appears to work better than the organization’s other projects. It’s a process known as spilling. During salmon migrations, water is spilled over the dams to imitate the river’s former flow.

    “What we’ve seen that is the most effective is spilling, spilling over the dams,” he says. “Of course, that’s in direct conflict with power generation.”

    Sea Lions

    Over the last six years, a new problem has emerged for the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates Bonneville Dam.

    Sea lions have learned that they can travel from the Pacific Ocean all the way up the Columbia River to the base of Bonneville Dam, where they can dine on all the salmon that congregatethere before attempting to bypass the structure. To combat the problem, the National Marine Fisheries Servicegave permission to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the states of Washington and Oregon to scare away the marine mammals with firecrackers or rubber bullets. The states have even begun the controversial process of euthanizing, or humanely killing, repeat offenders.

    Bonneville Power Administration Public Affairs Officer Michael Milstein says that over the years the dams have been changed significantly in an attempt to lessen their impact on the river’s ecosystem.

    “They are really different dams than they were when they were first built in terms of the way they affect fish,” Milstein says.

    The Sierra Club notes that the Bonneville Power Administration’s efforts have yielded some results, but they have to wonder if the dams are worth all the extra time and money.

    “There’s no doubt it’s helping, but you have to weigh out the costs,” Hickman says. “If it costs this much to operate the dam at a legal level to comply with maintaining or enhancing fish runs, then how much are you gaining by having the dams in place? How much is it benefiting us by hydroelectric poweror barge navigation? Sometimes, those cause and effects don’t weigh out.”

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    angler Noun

    person who fishes.

    Army Corps of Engineers Noun

    government organization concerned with construction projects.

    barge Noun

    large, flat-bottomed boat used to transport cargo.

    base Noun

    bottom layer of a structure.

    Bonneville Dam Noun

    series of hydroelectric dams and locks across the Columbia River in the U.S. states of Oregon and Washington.

    Bonneville Power Administration Noun

    government agency that distributes electricity produced by dams on the Columbia River.

    bypass Verb

    to go around or skip.

    clamp down on Verb

    to strictly limit or control.

    coal Noun

    dark, solid fossil fuel mined from the earth.

    Columbia River Noun

    (1,955 kilometers/1,214 miles) river in western Canada and the U.S., draining into the Pacific Ocean.

    comply Verb

    to obey.

    concrete Noun

    hard building material made from mixing cement with rock and water.

    conflict Noun

    a disagreement or fight, usually over ideas or procedures.

    congregate Verb

    to gather.

    controversial Noun

    questionable or leading to argument.

    dam Noun

    structure built across a river or other waterway to control the flow of water.

    determine Verb

    to decide.

    dine Verb

    to eat.

    domesticate Verb

    to tame or adapt for human use.

    downstream Noun

    in the direction of a flow, toward its end.

    ecosystem Noun

    community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem
    electricity Noun

    set of physical phenomena associated with the presence and flow of electric charge.

    enhance Verb

    to add to or increase in worth.

    erect Verb

    to build or raise.

    euthanize Verb

    to put to death.

    firecracker Noun

    noisemaking device made of a tube filled with explosive material.

    fish ladder Noun

    series of steps overflowing with water, where fish can migrate upstream around a barrier such as a dam.

    fish run Noun

    migration pattern for a species of fish, including route and the number of fish.

    froth Verb

    to foam or produce many tiny bubbles.

    Grand Coulee Dam Noun

    hydroelectric dam on the Columbia River in the U.S. state of Washington.

    habitat Noun

    environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: habitat
    havoc Noun

    violent destruction.

    hydroelectric power Noun

    usable energy generated by moving water converted to electricity.

    imitate Verb

    to copy the style of something.

    impassable Adjective

    not possible to pass through.

    implement Verb

    to carry out plans.

    initially Adverb

    at first.

    invasive species Noun

    type of plant or animal that is not indigenous to a particular area and causes economic or environmental harm.

    Encyclopedic Entry: invasive species
    juvenile Noun

    animal that is no longer a baby but has not reached sexual maturity.

    lock Noun

    structure on a waterway where gates at each end allow the water level to raise and lower as they are opened and closed.

    maintain Verb

    to continue, keep up, or support.

    migrate Verb

    to move from one place or activity to another.

    National Marine Fisheries Service Noun

    U.S. agency responsible for marine resources and habitats.

    Native American Noun

    person whose ancestors were native inhabitants of North or South America. Native American usually does not include Eskimo or Hawaiian people.

    natural gas Noun

    type of fossil fuel made up mostly of the gas methane.

    Encyclopedic Entry: natural gas
    navigable Adjective

    able for vessels to steer through.

    operate Verb

    to control or manage.

    placid Adjective


    predatory Adjective

    killing other animals for food.

    reservoir Noun

    natural or man-made lake.

    Encyclopedic Entry: reservoir
    robust Adjective

    healthy and strong.

    rubber bullet Noun

    hard-plastic ammunition fired from a normal or specialized firearm.

    salmon Noun

    cold-water fish hunted for food and game.

    sea lion Noun

    marine mammal.

    Sierra Club Noun

    U.S. organization that promotes the protection of wildlife and wildlife habitat.

    significant Adjective

    important or impressive.

    sluiceway Noun

    artificial water channel whose flow can be controlled.

    spawn Verb

    to give birth to.

    spilling Noun

    process of intentionally spilling water over the tops of dams.

    tributary Noun

    stream that feeds, or flows, into a larger stream.

    Encyclopedic Entry: tributary
    turbine Noun

    machine that captures the energy of a moving fluid, such as air or water.

    upstream Adjective

    toward an elevated part of a flow of fluid, or place where the fluid passed earlier.

    waterfall Noun

    flow of water descending steeply over a cliff. Also called a cascade.

    Encyclopedic Entry: waterfall
    watershed Noun

    entire river system or an area drained by a river and its tributaries.

    Encyclopedic Entry: watershed
    whitewater Noun

    fast-moving parts of a river.

    wreak Verb

    to inflict or bring about something painful.

    yoke Noun

    device for joining two draft animals, such as oxen, together at their necks.

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