The Columbia is the largest river in the Pacific Northwest and fourth largest by volume in the United States. Rising in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, it flows for 1,243 miles – 2,000 km – before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. Its watershed extends into seven US states and a Canadian province. The river’s heavy flow and relatively steep gives it tremendous potential for the generation of electricity.
14 Hydroelectric Dams produce more than 44 % of total U.S. Hydroelectric Power
Culture the river and its tributaries have been central to the region’s culture and economy for thousands of years. The river system hosts many species of fish, which migrate between fresh water habitats and the saline waters of the Pacific Ocean. Salmon provides the core subsistence for native peoples.
Transportation in past centuries, indigenous peoples traveled across western North America to the Columbia to trade for fish and overland explorers entered the Willamette Valley through the scenic Columbia River Gorge and pioneers began to settle the valley in increasing numbers. Steamboats along the river linked communities and facilitated trade; the arrival of railroads in the late 19th century, many running along the river, supplemented these links.
Navigation locks were built to aid ship and barge service along the lower Columbia and its tributaries; dredging has opened, maintained, and enlarged ship channels. Since the early 20th century, dams have been built across the river for the power generation, navigation, irrigation and flood control.
Native Americans have inhabited the Columbia’s watershed for more than 15,000 years, with a transition to a sedentary lifestyle based mainly on salmon starting about 3,500 years ago. In 1996 the skeletal remains of the 9,000-year-old prehistoric Kennewick man. Oral histories describe the formation and destruction of a land bridge that connected the Oregon and Washington sides of the river in the Columbia River Gorge. The bridge aligns with geological records of the Bonneville Slide. Stories about the bridge differ in their details but agree in general that the bridge permitted increased interaction between tribes on the north and south sides of the river.
European and American ships explored the coastal area around the mouth of the Columbia in the late 18th century, trading with local natives. Lewis and Clark entered Oregon country between 1805 and 1807, encountering numerous small native settlements. From the earliest contact with westerners, the natives were not tribal, but instead congregated in social units no larger than a village, and more often at a family level.
Captain Gray was the First Explorer to enter the River; he named it after his Ship Colombia Rediviva
Irrigation many farmers in central Washington build dams on their property for irrigation and to control frost on their crops. Six such dams have failed in recent years, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to crops and public roads. Fourteen farms in the area have gone through the permitting process to build such dams legally.
The Columbia Colorado and Mississippi Watersheds meet at Three Waters Mountain in Wyoming
Tributaries the Columbia receives more than 60 tributaries; the four largest are the Snake River, the Willamette River, the Kootenay River and the Pend Oreille River.
Columbia River Itineraries