A new look at an old river

Knowledge deepens as scientists survey the bottom of the Columbia

A new map of the Columbia River is in the works that could reveal the best fishing holes and help both windsurfers and boaters avoid rocks and shoals.

On Monday, scientists from the Columbia River Research Lab in Cook, Wash., finished two weeks of charting the river bottom from Bonneville Dam to The Dalles Dam. The five participating U.S. Geological Survey explorers were joined by peers from California and Massachusetts in the high-tech project.

“This will give a lot of good revelant information to users of the resource,” said USGS Geographer James Hatten.

The team loaded a multiple beam sonar system on the 36-foot “Estero” owned by the USGS and made multiple trips up and down a 44 mile stretch of waterway to obtain a “moonscape” view of the hidden depths. As the boat crawled along at five knots, sonar “pings” bounced off the floor of the river and scientists began to see mountains and canyons emerge — and even a series of sand dunes near Wyeth. These underwater vistas unfolded as the scientists painstakingly made a series of parallel passes about 75 feet apart.

“I don’t think I’ll ever look at the river the same after this,” said Tim Counihan, USGS biologist.

Fear of damaging the $500,000 equipment, which dangled about 10 feet below the boat, kept the crew away from some shallow areas. Because of time constraints with the visiting experts, there were also small sections of the river where mapping was unable to be completed. But Counihan said the missing pieces will be fitted into the mapping puzzle next year through a continuation of the exercise.

Meanwhile, Dr. James Petersen, a fishery biologist, said research staffers will now begin adding layers to the baseline map that include water velocity, flow direction and turbidity, and sediment depths.

Within the next two years, they hope to have a multidimensional document that can be posted on a special website for public access. Although the map is expected to aid recreationists, Petersen said the primary purpose behind gathering the data is to learn more about the subterranean ecosystem and the fish communities which inhabit it. They are interested not only in studying the living conditions of endangered migratory salmon runs, but also that of native populations, such as white sturgeon which feed off the river bottom that is now known to reach 130 feet deep in places.

“There are going to be dozens of questions we’ll be able to answer in the not too distant future that we would not have been able to answer before we did this survey,” said Petersen.

One of the questions that could be answered by the new map was raised during the controversy over the removal of Condit Dam. Petersen it is possible that, by studying river channels, scientists will be able to determine where sediments built up behind the structure will end up downstream if released by its destruction.

But the team at the USGS offices in the Gorge will not otherwise be involved in that political dispute. Petersen said the sole mission of the geographers and biologists is to gather data that is turned over to management agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where it is factored into fish protection strategies. Currently, the staff at the Cook office have 40 research projects underway in the Columbia River Basin — but Counihan, Petersen and Hatten agree that creating the new map is definitely the most exciting.

“You’re seeing things in ways you’ve never seen them before — it’s not unlike space exploration,” said Counihan.

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