Although our lovely Columbia estuary is no cesspool, scientists are finding serious pollution at numerous locations upriver from us, pollution that demands prompt and serious attention.
Sitting here at the very bottom of the France-sized Columbia River watershed, it has long been a nagging concern that we may also be on the receiving end of 1,200 miles of toxic contamination.
Studies a decade ago found worrisome levels of dangerous chemicals in the internal organs of some bottom-feeding river fish in the estuary. River otters in at least one location experienced profound defects in their reproductive organs. Eagles, which have reestablished themselves along the Lower Columbia in noticeable numbers, have continued to reproduce at a lower rate than eagles elsewhere. At the same time, few toxicity problems were spotted in salmon and a host of other river species. All in all, these past studies were reassuring in most respects, while suggesting a need for more research.
Both in the estuary and above Bonneville, researchers have spent the intervening 10 years probing the Columbia's sediments, water and living things. What they found was serious enough to prompt the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to add the river to its short list of major waterways demanding national attention.
While it certainly isn't about to join the Love Canal and Three-Mile Island on the U.S. rogue's list of polluted places, the Columbia has some very worrisome symptoms. As outlined by the Seattle Times:
Some crayfish near Bonneville Dam are loaded with so many toxins that scientists wonder how they can continue to live.
Water in parts of the last stretch of the river is as contaminated as Seattle's Duwamish River, a federal Superfund site.
Native Americans who eat a lot of Columbia River salmon face a cancer risk of up to 1 in 500, far higher than the EPA's threshold of concern, and risks are even higher for those who eat a lot of sturgeon.
Scientists suspect pollution is impacting survival rates for sturgeon and juvenile salmon.
A plume of highly radioactive technetium-99 in ground water is moving toward the river after leaking from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
"Legacy pollutants" - chemicals banned in the 1970s such as PCBs and DDT - still flush into the river, accumulating in fish and other animals at some of the highest levels in the Northwest.
It's good that agencies and scientists are starting to gain deeper insights in Columbia River conditions, but irritating that so little progress has been made in addressing these problems. Although EPA has now placed the river on its list of top national water priorities, a decidedly rudimentary goal has been set to reduce the amount of the worst contaminants in fish and water by 10 percent within five years.
For far too long, the Columbia has been a neglected stepchild in terms of environmental care. We and future generations will long pay the price for the cavalier attitude display toward the great river of the West. It's time to get the lead out, figuratively and literally.