The Columbia River Basin is Worth Protecting

It's worth all our efforts to keep it free from AIS

By Sarah Thoman

Henry David Thoreau once said, “who hears the rippling of rivers will not utterly despair of anything.” This belief in the beauty of a river and the wellbeing it brings to a community has long been understood. The Columbia River is magnificent, from the pristine headwaters in Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, water flows through nearly six million acres of forests, farms, and cities. The waters of the Flathead, Stillwater, Swan, and Whitefish rivers all join in Flathead Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. At the lake’s outlet in the southwest portion, the lower Flathead River flows about 72 miles to where it joins the Clark Fork River, which flows 310 miles to Lake Pend O’reille in Idaho, then 130 more miles down into the Columbia River. The river provides a place for recreation and powerful energy production. An introduction of aquatic invasive species (AIS) to any part of this system could bring an infestation to waterbodies reaching from Glacier National Park to Astoria, Oregon, where the Columbia meets the Pacific Ocean, impacting the economies and ecologies of the jurisdictions through which they flow.

Montana’s landscape draws numerous tourists every year and enhances why people choose to live here; to enjoy the outdoors. According to the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation, the state’s “outdoor recreation economy generates $7.1 billion in consumer spending and more than 71,000 jobs.” Residents and visitors participate in a variety of activities such as hunting and water-related recreation. These everyday choices can have a considerable impact on the Montana economy. In 2017, throughout the Columbia and Missouri River basins, they spent $890 million during peak season. If the Columbia River basin became infested with mussels, the tourism sector would face potential losses up to $35.6 million. Outdoor recreation is an essential element of the economy to protect because it creates and retains jobs, bolsters small businesses, and increases community wellbeing.

The Columbia River basin also supports Montana’s economy in numerous other ways. For one, 11 dams placed throughout the main river and its tributaries provide the power that flows to power plants throughout the entire basin. These plants provided 44% of the United States’ hydrologic generation in 2012. These power plants are one-way Montana, and the northwest can help move the country toward a more sustainable future.

Research results published in 2019, reported that the potential economic damage to the Upper Columbia River basin if invaded by mussels would include up to “$44.9 million in lost revenue” and up to “$466.4 million in diminished property value.” The loss from property values is so high in the Upper Columbia River basin because of three particular lakes: Flathead, Swan, and Whitefish. These lakes are all inviting because they offer recreational opportunities and beautiful viewscapes. Water that is smelly and unsafe for recreation due to a mussel infestation or algal growth could drastically reduce property values for lakeside owners and discourage new home purchases.

These reports and numbers are discouraging.  However, the Columbia River basin is currently the last major river system in the United States remaining un-infested by invasive mussels. This means we still have time – and an obligation – to act.

The Upper Columbia Conservation Commission (UC3) is an organization on the frontlines, acting to ensure the best protections are in place against an AIS introduction. The organization is charged with protecting “the aquatic environment in Montana tributaries to the Columbia River from the threat of AIS in order to protect water resources, downstream interests, and the economic and ecological vitality of the region.” The commission works with federal, state, tribal, and community partners to complete projects and programs that help them achieve their mission. This year they contributed to education and outreach programs; developed an early detection and monitoring plan; provided support to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; and made recommendations to the governor and state agencies for changes that help reduce threats from AIS.

The culturally and naturally rich Columbia River basin is worth all our efforts to keep it free from AIS.

Sarah Thoman is a freelance writer currently based in Valdosta, Georgia.

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