Updated July 09, 2020
By Special to The Oregonian/OregonLive
By Chuck Thompson, Columbia Insight
The freshwater plume that discharges from the Columbia River into the Pacific Ocean around Astoria is an ever-changing phenomenon. Near the Columbia River Estuary at the mouth of the river it may be mostly freshwater; as it expands into the Pacific it becomes brackish; in places it might be a 50-50 mix of fresh- and saltwater; eventually ocean water overtakes it completely.
During heavy flow periods in spring the plume can extend 100 miles offshore at its outermost edge and as far south as Newport. In fall, it’s a more localized feature around the mouth of the river and can spread like a narrow jet along the Washington coast less than 10 miles from shore.
Winds and the tidal Coriolis effect also impact its position.
Linked to salmon survival, water conditions in the estuary are vital to the health of the entire Columbia River Basin. But it’s a tricky thing to study.
As of this month, the primary research operation monitoring the flow and chemistry of waters in the Columbia River Estuary and offshore areas has a new overseer.
On June 1, Oregon Health & Science University officially transferred operational control of the Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
It’s more than a bureaucratic move. For Columbia River tribes, it’s a massive and significant deal.
For the fish commission, acquisition of the nationally renowned coastal center builds on a growing capacity for world-class research. The center collects and analyzes estuary data that informs everything from Columbia River Treaty negotiations to industrial dredging operations to salmon recovery strategies.
“This is a tremendous capacity-building advance for the Columbia River tribes,” says commission chairman Jeremy Red Star Wolf. “Our professional river and salmon management staffs have wanted more ocean and river connectivity in research, applied science and management. CMOP will help deliver that.”
The Inter-Tribal Fish Commission coordinates management policy and provides fisheries technical services for the Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes.
“So often the general population’s perception of tribes are either that they’re caught in the past or are just about fishing,” says commission spokesperson Jeremy FiveCrows. “People have no idea we’re doing this much primary science. In co-managing this resource, we’re managing at the same level as state and federal agencies.
“Our Hagerman Genetics Laboratory (in Idaho) is one of the foremost fish genetics labs in the whole country. Adding CMOP, a primary science source, under the umbrella of a tribe, can really change peoples’ ideas of who tribes are today.”
What is ‘coastal-margin science’?
The Center for Coastal Margin Observation acquires data through a network of observation stations and buoys, many equipped with radio telemetry. (Some stations are currently inactive due to coronavirus-related restrictions.) Underwater “gliders” that roam the coast also collect data.
The network ranges from points offshore as far up the Columbia River as the Camas-Washougal area.
Research staff use computer models to verify and expand the scope of observations. All data are publicly accessible and used by federal, state and tribal agencies. The information is also used by fishers, shipping companies, aquaculture businesses, weather forecasters, public utilities, search-and-rescue teams and others to make informed operational decisions.
The center calls its primary pursuit “coastal-margin science.” Numerous organizations and academics conduct research in transitional aquatic environments. But the study of these critical near- and offshore zones isn’t traditionally recognized as a single discipline in the way of oceanography or limnology, the study of bodies of freshwater, such as rivers and lakes.
According to its own website, the center “is creating a new paradigm for conducting coastal-margin science. It is anticipatory rather than reactive, and is based on an information-rich environment where sensors, models and people all generate and freely share information. We call these integrations ‘collaboratories.’”
“One of the important things we do is long-term observation,” says center coordinator Charles Seaton, who is making the transition from OHSU to the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “A lot of scientific research tends to be more focused on a specific question you want to answer. You put out instruments and do observations for a week or a month or a year and get data to answer a particular question you are interested in.
“For understanding the long-term health of the system and being able to see what changes there are, for instance as climate change progresses, you have to observe constantly for a very long period of time. You can’t say the estuary has become saltier if you don’t know what the variability of the estuary is like over the long period. You really have to be watching for decades to see that that’s happening and be able to predict how it will go in the future.”
Bridging a ‘balkanized’ river
The fish commission has worked closely with coastal center for more than a decade. By 2018, when the idea for integration was first raised, the organizations had a tight connection.
“We are proud of the work that the CMOP team has accomplished and are confident that CRITFC will continue to sustain and expand this mission in the future,” said Daniel L. Marks, senior associate dean for research in the OHSU School of Medicine in a press release. “We believe that the momentum and trust built during this collaborative transfer process will serve as a model for ongoing collaboration with CRITFC and tribal communities.”
According to Chuck Hudson, tribal commission director of government affairs, one of the coastal centers primary roles is to serve as a bridge between river and ocean knowledge and agencies.
“In the Columbia Basin you have a very balkanized, massive watershed that spans two countries and seven states,” says Hudson. “All sorts of different jurisdictions and agencies are often charged with conflicting mandates—say, irrigated agriculture, river navigation or forest work.
“CRITFC has done some of its best work in breaking down the balkanization … but we still find Columbia Basin politicians and mangers and responsible parties throwing their hands up and saying, ‘It really doesn’t matter what we do in the rivers, it’s all ocean conditions.’ Or ‘The ocean is just this big black box, we don’t know what’s going on. What does it matter what we do here in the Columbia River?’
“The ocean has become an easy scapegoat to diminish responsibility for things we try to do in the river. Our program managers have been asking for capacity to better link Columbia River science and management and knowledge with ocean knowledge and management systems. … CMOP appears to us to be that perfect link to bridge those two knowledge and management areas.”
Following the fish
The center’s funding is primarily allocated through the U.S. Department of Commerce. Funding flows through various partner entities, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observation System and Northwest Association of Networked Coastal and Ocean Observing Systems.
The Portland-based Meyer Memorial Trust provided a $350,000 tribal science capacity-building grant to the fish commission to help with the transfer from OHSU.
Although the center’s headquarters will be moved from OHSU in Southwest Portland to tribal fish commission offices in Northeast Portland, physical operations will continue to be based in Astoria.
“The health and wellbeing of Oregonians starts with a healthy environment,” said Dr. Antonio Baptista, longtime center director and a retiring professor at OHSU, in a press release. “CMOP developed, for the Columbia River Estuary, the tools and culture needed to build scientific consensus on sustainable development under a changing climate. As natural stewards of the Columbia River, the tribes are in an outstanding position to expand and bring a centuries-long perspective to what we started decades ago.”
“Our co-management ethos dictates that wherever the salmon go, we go with them,” said CRITFC executive director Jaime A. Pinkham. “We intend to maintain the current capacity of the program and use it as a new beginning alongside public and nonprofit partners to bring tribal co-management and vision in the estuary and ocean environments.”
Columbia Insight, a 501c3 organization based in Hood River, is an online publication focused on environmental issues of the Columbia River Basin.