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What Is the Columbia River?

By Lori Spencer
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Columbia River is the fourth largest river in the United States, and the largest river in North America’s Pacific Northwest region. Traveling from the Rocky Mountains’ northern ranges in British Columbia, Canada, the 1,243 mile (2,000 km) long river flows down into Washington state and through Oregon before reaching the Pacific Ocean. The Columbia's largest tributary is the Snake River, which runs through Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Because of the Columbia River's heavy flow and steep gradient, it produces more hydroelectric power than any other river in North America. The river also provides breathtaking scenery, historic tourism and recreation options to the millions of visitors who travel to the Pacific Northwest annually.

The Columbia River played a critical role in the development of the Pacific Northwest region’s development, economy and culture. The river and its many tributaries provide transportation, electric power, and nourishment to area inhabitants. Numerous species of Anadromous fish, especially salmon, populate the Columbia. Early Native American dwellers of the area subsisted almost entirely on a diet of freshwater fish from the river. Salmon also played a key role in European development of the West. By 1828, traders were purchasing and exporting salmon caught by the Indians on the Columbia River. Fur trading companies made use of the Columbia as a key steamship transport route as well.

Efforts to capitalize on the massive river continued into the 20th century, resulting in increased development by both the public and private sectors. Construction of large commercial fisheries, enlarged shipping lanes, industrial factories, dams, irrigation and flood control channels have often had a negative impact upon the river's ecology. Contamination of the water by various metals, toxins and bacteria are a continuing problem for fish, wildlife, and people. Because levels of dioxin in the fish are frequently found to be at levels unsafe for human consumption, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued fish consumption advisories for many locations along the Columbia River basin. Plutonium from nuclear weapons manufacturing sites further contributes to pollution of the river; the Hanford Site is now the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States.

The Columbia River possesses one-third of the United States' potential for hydroelectric power generation. The Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph Dams are the largest of all 150 hydroelectric dams along the river. These two dams are also the largest in the United States and some of the largest in the world. Each dam's reservoir downriver of Grand Coulee is regulated by local utility providers, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration. In the 1940s, folk singer Woody Guthrie immortalized the dam projects in a series of 26 songs he wrote for the U.S. government's documentary film "The Columbia." For these now-classic works, Guthrie was paid $266.66 US Dollars (USD) — only ten dollars a song.

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