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The Columbia River-Climate Change and the Threat of Oil Trains on Fishing and Popular Uses, Brett VandenHeuvel Riverkeeper

Brett VandenHeuvel, Columbia Riverkeeper

Brett VandenHeuvel, Columbia Riverkeeper

Miles Johnson on the Hood River

Miles Johnson on the Hood River

A couple of days ago, I met with Brett VandenHeuvel, Miles Johnson, and Liz Terhaar of the Columbia Riverkeeper.  They took me to a few locations and then directed me to many areas they were interested in having me photograph.  I also got to attend a great fundraiser that evening during which Hood River Mayor Paul Blackburn, environmental modeler Matthew Shultz, and Columbia Riverkeeper attorney Miles Johnson all spoke about the issues affecting the river.  The topic of the presentation was "Hot Water, Fish Kill, and the Future of Salmon.  In the summer of 2015 they had an unprecedented salmon fish kill, with an estimated 500,000 adult sockeye salmon killed at this dam due to abnormally high temperatures throughout the summer.  It is the contention of Matthew and Miles that the 14 dams, 11 of which are in the US, are contributing to the overheating.  Each of the dams raises water temperature, and altogether it was just too hot for the salmon to survive.  Matthew's models showed that the spike in temperature might not have been sustained and it could have periodically dropped below 7o degrees, the temperature above which salmon can no longer survive for long periods of time, if the dams were not there. 

It's Not All Rainbows Over the Bonneville Dam

It's Not All Rainbows Over the Bonneville Dam

The dams have fish ladders that fish have to swim and leap up to get through to the other side of the river.  The image below shows one of these.  I didn't actually see any fish leaping, but I saw many swimming.

Fish Ladder, Bonneville Dam

Fish Ladder, Bonneville Dam

The dams not only raise temperature, they also impact the salmon populations in other ways.  The smaller salmon have a harder time making it through the fish ladders and they all bunch up before the dams making it easier for the pikeminnow to eat the young salmon.  While I was visiting Cascade Locks, I met a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife employee named Kevin.  He was there collecting the pikeminnow caught by fisherman and paying them for their catches.  It is the 26th year of this Sport Reward Fishery program, which is funded by the Bonneville Power Administration. Kevin said that they tried netting and shocking the pikeminnow first, but they harmed too many other fish. This situation works much better.  The gentleman below was fishing for salmon he told me, but he wasn't catching any.  Kevin told me this man had just turned in several pikeminnow and caught 15 the day before.

Fishing at Cascade Locks

Fishing at Cascade Locks

Kevin Putting Pikeminnows in the Cooler

Kevin Putting Pikeminnows in the Cooler

Algae with Frogs, Cascade Locks

Algae with Frogs, Cascade Locks

Warmer temperatures also make conditions ripe for more algae blooms, especially where water stagnates.  The image above was taken between Cascade Locks and Thunder Island.  There was little movement.  If you look closely, you can see two frogs being forced to live in this muck.

Pulling in the Nets, Cascade Locks

Pulling in the Nets, Cascade Locks

Cascade Locks, as well as Celilo Falls further upriver (and now covered up because of a dam) has have been popular fishing spots since indigenous people settled here.  The images below show fishing platforms, nets, and other early fishing implements.

Fishing Platforms, Cascade Locks

Fishing Platforms, Cascade Locks

In addition to netting, these platforms were also used to catch salmon.  

Indigenous Fishing Pole

Indigenous Fishing Pole

I was fortunate to meet Kim Brigham Campbell at Brigham Fish in Cascade Locks, where I went for lunch.  This restaurant opened two years ago and is the only brick and mortar establishment run by indigenous fisher people.  Kim owns this restaurant with her sister Terrie Brigham and her mother Kathryn Brigham.  They were one of the first all female fishing crews on the Columbia River.

Brigham Fish

Brigham Fish

Kim Brigham

Kim Brigham

Kim and her family were happy the salmon was coming back this year.  Fishing is part of their cultural heritage.  Many indigenous people are the first to speak out on climate change, because their lives are directly impacted first, although truthfully all of us are affected.

Bonneville Fish Hatchery

Bonneville Fish Hatchery

Though I am generally opposed to fish hatcheries, I understand why the tribes feel the Bonneville hatchery is important.  Salmon was the foundation of Indian people's culture and economy.  It has been estimated that runs were between 11 and 16 million.   Treaties were signed with all the tribes when the dams were Bonneville Project Act  to market power from dams.  The Mitchell Act was passed that same year.  This act guaranteed the tribes the ability to make up what was lost through dams through fisheries.  Here is a link to a history of fishing rights along the Columbia River: http://www.critfc.org/about-us/fisheries-timeline/.

Rainbow Trout Piling on Top of Each Other

Rainbow Trout Piling on Top of Each Other

These Rainbow Trout are just here for tourists, but you get the idea that fish live in close quarters.

Young Trout Caged

When fish must live in such close quarters, they are frequently fed antibiotics and other chemicals to ensure that they don't become ill.  These drugs then find their way into rivers.

Pond by the Bonneville Fish Hatchery

Pond by the Bonneville Fish Hatchery

Climate change and dams made this and other hatcheries needed to ensure the supply of fish the region depends on.  Arguably the biggest contributor to climate change is fossil fuels.  The Columbia River Gorge is a great risk from contamination due to derailments as the incident in June in Mosier showed us.  In April 2016, the Columbia Riverkeeper and the people of the estuary prevailed over Oregon LNG, the last remaining natural gas terminal proposal.  However, Miles Johnson and Waterkeeper attorneys are still fighting coal, oil, propane transport along the river. Here is a link to a sheet with information about oil transport on the columbia between 2012-2016 prepared by Miles: http://columbiariverkeeper.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Oil-by-Rail_Whpaper_FINAL.pdf.

Trash Receptacle with Discarded Boots, Mosier Derailment Site

Trash Receptacle with Discarded Boots, Mosier Derailment Site

The area where the spill occurred doesn't look like much now, though on June 3 a 96-car train looaded with Bakken Oil derailed traveling 25 mph.  Spilled oil ignited causing four cars to be involved in a fire that burned for over 14 hours.  The derailment was caused by broken lag bolts that hold the rail ties and track together.  Also problematic are many bridges that trains frequently traverse, such as the one below.

Tenuous Nature of Bridges Carrying Trains with Bakken Oil and Other Fossil Fuels

Tenuous Nature of Bridges Carrying Trains with Bakken Oil and Other Fossil Fuels

After the derailment, some of the damaged cars were just pushed to the side of the tracks in a rush to reopen the line.  Some of these cars were full of oil, even though the City of Mosier passed an emergency motion calling requiring Union Pacific to remove all oil from the damaged cars.  If another trail had derailed, the situation would have been exponentially worse and leaving the cars there likely increased the risk of groundwater contamination.  The cars have been removed by now and all that is left are these booms designed to prevent oil and spills from leaching into the surrounding landscape.

Boom with Ruins Near the Mosier Derailment Site

Boom with Ruins Near the Mosier Derailment Site

Where the derailment occurred is right near the Rock Creek and Mosier Creeks.  In between the two is the very popular Windsurf Beach.  The area is heavily used by people from all over the world who flock to Mosier and the Columbia River Gorge for kiting and windsurfing. You can see from the image below that any water that flows into the creek makes its way into the Columbia River, and the photograph of the bridge shows there was a boom there too.  There was definitely contamination from this spill, although it could have been much worse than it was.

Where the Outflow from Rock Creek Meets Windsurf Beach

Where the Outflow from Rock Creek Meets Windsurf Beach

People are not going to give up using the Columbia River.  The region is dependent on it for fish and tourism and the culture of the area revolves around the river too.  

Sculling with a Train in the Background

Sculling with a Train in the Background

Sunning Near the Derailment Site

Sunning Near the Derailment Site

The couple of days when I was there, the wind was down, so I did not get to witness the kiters and windsurfers.  I did see a lot of paddle boarders, waders, and dogs in the river and even my dog Takoda went for a swim at the Spit in Hood River, where the Hood and Columbia Rivers meet and fresh water from the Hood River enters the waterway.  Below are some images of people enjoying the Columbia River watershed. There are so many reasons to protect this incredible natural resource.

Paddle Boarding by the Hood River Near the Confluence with the Columbia River

Paddle Boarding by the Hood River Near the Confluence with the Columbia River

Fly Fishing by the Confluence of the Hood and Columbia River

Fly Fishing by the Confluence of the Hood and Columbia River

Jet Skiers with Someone on a Weird Propulsion Device I have Never Seen Before

Jet Skiers with Someone on a Weird Propulsion Device I have Never Seen Before

Beach by the Hood River Bridge

Beach by the Hood River Bridge

Takoda Running on the Way to the Spit, Hood River

Takoda Running on the Way to the Spit, Hood River

The Spit, the giant sandbar into the Columbia River is the epicenter of Hood River life.  Everyone goes there with their dogs.  Takoda had an amazing time swimming there.  Of course he drank some of the water, as dogs are prone to do.  I was yelling at him not to, because he almost died from bad water in Florida and was in the small animal hospital for several days.   A local looked at me like I was nuts.  Finally she told me both her dogs had been drinking the water for five years and they were both still alive and fine.  I still had my doubts, because I know that toxins and heavy metals flow into the river from derailments, the toxic 586-mile Hanford site that contains most of America's nuclear waste, and many other sources.  I am crossing my fingers he drank mostly Hood River Water.