COLUMN: Exhibit refutes notion of an unruly Columbia River

An exhibit at Oxygen Art Centre re-examines the flooding of Vanport, Oregon in 1948

Vanport, Ore., dike giving way, May 1948. Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

By Eileen Delehanty Pearkes

The winter white piling up on the mountainsides right now form an important part of the Columbia River’s snow-charged system. When it melts, snow provides abundant water resources that drive the production of hydropower. The Columbia River Treaty manages those resources, and it protects human property from flooding.

All cultural attitudes are shaped by historical events. A driving force for the Columbia River Treaty was the 1948 flood, during which the community of Vanport, Ore. (adjacent to Portland) was completely lost. The flooding of Vanport is still used today by governments as a justification for the need to greatly constrict Columbia River flows. The Canadian storage dams, they say, are needed to protect communities from flooding.

A new and important exhibit at Oxygen Art Centre is well worth taking in for how it exposes another side of the Vanport story and questions exactly what motivates water management decisions. As the exhibit Oh, Columbia makes clear, the loss of lives at Vanport was not the river’s fault. The U.S. government botched an evacuation order that could have saved lives. The loss of Vanport’s infrastructure was due to an inadequate railway dike serving as the only protection for the inexpensive floodplain land the town was built on.

The truth behind the myth of an unruly river has never been promoted or officially accepted by either the U.S. or Canada in the 50-plus years since the treaty was ratified and implemented.

In 2012, an extra-rainy June proved that dams can play a role in protecting built communities, even in our upstream region. Without Duncan and Libby dams in operation, water levels would have come up considerably higher. So, it’s important not to dash dams 100 per cent.

However, as the exhibit makes clear, it’s also important to ask questions about how we manage our liquid resources, and to consider how we can operate water systems in a less rigid and controlling way. Since U.S. Tribes published their Common Views document on the Columbia River in 2010, they have been asking the U.S. and Canadian governments to relax the constraint on spring outflows, in order to support salmon migration, both into and out of the Columbia. More recently, Canadian First Nations have added their voices to the common view, and are now advocating in person for changes at the treaty table.

Simply put, the treaty allows for spring flows to peak at between 450 and 600 cubic feet per second, measured at The Dalles, Ore. Despite that, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has stringently managed the system at the minimum. This extreme is in part a cultural response (fear of flooding) and in part economic (the more water stored upstream at Libby, Duncan and Mica, the more hydro-power profits made, both in Canada and downstream in the U.S.).

While threats to human property and lives must always be taken into consideration, the timely Oxygen Art Center exhibit makes clear that cultural attitudes to river management may need to shift. Building more resilient responses into the system, by restoring some floodplain where possible, may become critical in a world influenced by climate extremes. Listening to the well-informed tribes and First Nations, whose practice of resilience dates back thousands of years, might also help build a more adaptive Columbia system.

Oh, Columbia features the work of visiting resident artist Mary Babcock, with a soundscape by local writer and artist Susan Andrews Grace. The exhibition runs until Feb. 1 at Oxygen Art Center (in the alley behind Hipperson’s Hardware), Wednesday to Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. The closing reception is Jan. 31 from 7 to 9 p.m.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Comments are closed

Just Posted

Three face charges in Nelson fentanyl busts

Two men and a woman were arrested in two separate incidents

Nelson cyclist run over by truck

Driver ticketed for failing to yield right of way on left turn

Hwy 1 flooding causes massive delays on certain Arrow Lakes ferry routes

Motorists have been waiting around three hours to get on ferries

RDCK: spring flooding financial relief available

The provincial funds are for those affected by flooding in May and early June

Pamela Allain, Laura Gellatly join the Nelson Star

Allain oversees Black Press’s West Kootenay papers, while Gellatly is the Star’s new publisher

B.C. accommodators need phone lines to light up as in-province travel given green light

Travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic have decimated the tourism and hospitality industries

300 Cache Creek residents on evacuation alert due to flood risk as river rises

Heavy rainfall on Canada Day has river rising steadily, threatening 175 properties

First glimpse of Canada’s true COVID-19 infection rate expected mid-July

At least 105,000 Canadians have tested positive for COVID-19 since the coronavirus was identified

Police ramp up efforts to get impaired drivers off B.C. roads this summer

July is dedicated to the Summer CounterAttack Impaired Driving Campaign

Migrant workers stage multi-city action for full status amid COVID-19 risks

‘COVID-19 has exacerbated an existing crisis’

Okanagan school drops ‘Rebels’ sports team name, citing links with U.S. Civil War

Name and formerly-used images “fly in the face” of the district’s human rights policy, says board chair

PHOTOS: B.C.’s top doc picks up personalized Fluevog shoes, tours mural exhibition

Murals of Gratitude exhibit includes at least one portrait of Henry alongside paintings of health-care workers

In troubled times: Independence Day in a land of confusion

Buffeted by invisible forces and just plain worn out, the United States of America celebrates its 244th birthday

Stop enforcing sex work laws during COVID-19, advocates say

There are provisions in Canada’s prostitution laws that make workers immune from prosecution, but not from arrest

Most Read