Columbia River Basin Watershed & Its Ecosystem

The romantic and mythic nature of the Columbia River is something that cuts across both generations and cultures. Some Native Americans call it “Nch-i-wana,” or the Big River. Lewis and Clark wrote about its beauty, power, and changing nature in their diaries. And in this century, Woody Guthrie’s folk song “Roll on Columbia” reflects the awe of new settlers seeing it for the first time.

This natural beauty is distinguished by an equally rich array of natural resources. As settlers began to populate the Northwest and tap into these resources, environmental impacts became more apparent and increased over time.

Some of these impacts are due to the network of over 250 hydroelectric projects that were built over the past 115 years. To better understand these impacts, this section provides an overview of the Columbia’s watershed and the most basic elements of some of its ecosystems: the riparian zone, tributaries, wetlands, forests, and the estuary.

Such understanding forms the basis for describing how the environmental balance is being either temporarily or permanently changed because of impacts caused by hydroelectric projects. This understanding also helps form the basis for explaining the enhancement and mitigation strategies that are being used to assist the health of these ecosystems and the plants, fish, and wildlife that call them home.

We will begin by describing the Columbia River Basin’s watershed.