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.

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