Article

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.”

Vocabulary

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.

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

calm.

predatory

Adjective

killing other animals for food.

reservoir

Noun

natural or man-made lake where water is stored.

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.

Credits

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Writer

Stuart Thornton

Editor

Jeannie Evers
Kara West

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

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