The River

The Mighty Columbia

UPPER COLUMBIA: Purcell Mountains reflect in calm water near Spillimacheen, BC (left); ESTUARY: Skamokawa Landing on Lower Columbia, WA (right). Photo credit: Peter Marbach.
Upper Columbia (left); Estuary (right). Photo credit: Peter Marbach.

About the Columbia River

The Columbia River Basin drains water from a diverse landscape the size of France, from lush rainforests to craggy mountains to the high desert. The Columbia Basin also spans political boundaries, including the ceded lands of multiple tribes, Indian reservations, seven U.S. states, and Canada.
For generations, the Columbia River supported the greatest salmon and steelhead runs on Earth. Salmon tie together much of the Columbia Basin economically, socially, and spiritually. The fish also connect the region physically by moving through our cities and towns on great up- and downstream migrations.


Water Quality 

Toxic pollution's heavy toll

Gaze at the Columbia River, and the scenic beauty belies the toxic crisis. Scientific evidence from the Columbia tells the real story: generations of abuse as a pollution dumping ground.

The facts will jar you:

  • Columbia River tribal members who eat fish frequently may have cancer risks up to 50 times higher than people who eat fish once a month.
  • Wastewater treatment plants discharge more than 100 toxic substances into the Columbia River.
  • Certain species of fish, such as sturgeon and bass, contain high levels of cancer-causing chemicals. Rather than clean up the pollution, Oregon and Washington warn people not to eat certain types of fish in parts of the Columbia River.

Where is all the pollution coming from?

Every day, thousands of pipes release pollution into the Columbia and its tributaries. The Columbia River Basin receives pollution from factories; wastewater treatment plants; and runoff from agricultural lands, logging, and industrial sites, and city streets. As if this weren’t enough, the Columbia Basin is home to hundreds of contaminated waste sites—including the most polluted place in the Western Hemisphere: the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Studies on Columbia River resident fish, otters, bald eagles, and other species reveal the heavy toll of toxic pollution.

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Clean water matters for the future of Columbia River communities and salmon runs.

Rising water temperatures threaten salmon

Salmon need cool water to survive. Among other negative impacts, warm water encourages the growth of disease-causing bacteria and fungi, delays migration, and depletes the energy reserves of migrating fish.

How warm is too warm?

Adult salmon have difficulty migrating upstream when water temperatures approach 68 °F. Salmon that have stopped or slowed their migration, and languish for days or weeks in warm water, begin dying from stress and disease.

In summer 2015, 96 percent of the returning Snake River sockeye salmon run died prematurely in the Columbia and Lower Snake rivers because the reservoirs, coupled with record air temperature and low flows, caused the water to become too warm. Most Snake River sockeye failed to even reach the Snake River in 2015, turning back and dying in the Columbia. Snake River sockeye are an endangered species, and experts warn that warm water conditions similar to 2015 could become more frequent as climate change intensifies.

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Join Columbia Riverkeeper to protect the mighty Columbia.