From degraded wetlands and beaches starved of needed sand to poorly maintained jetties, the mouth of the Columbia River has enough parallels with the mouth of the Mississippi to make any thinking person distinctly nervous.

In both places, we humans have engaged in wholesale modifications of natural land and water systems in ways that leave us teetering on the brink of disaster. New Orleans may have been uniquely at risk in the sense that so many people lived in such a vulnerable setting. Although the Oregon and Washington coasts lack a large city below sea level, political and economic compromises similar to those made in Louisiana have set the stage for tremendous property loss here.

As reported Wednesday in our sister newspaper, the Chinook Observer, the volume of sediment carried by the Columbia River has diminished by as much as two-thirds. Probable causes are the construction of dams upstream and the restriction of seasonal floods along its shores.

Reporter Cate Gable's story tells how the Columbia's diminished "carrying capacity," means there is less building material for our beaches and dunes both north and south of the river mouth and fewer nutrient-rich soils to replenish our wetlands. These were unantici-pated side effects - as was the reduction of our salmon runs - when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began the dam building projects in the late 1950s to provide irrigation to Eastern Washington, create slack-water navigation, and to give us some of the lowest energy costs in the nation.

In many ways, the situation we face is the result of deliberate decisions by Congress, carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Instead of treating the river's sediments as a precious resource needed to maintain beaches and the dunes that are our natural levees, the Corps is dumping millions of cubic yards of dredged materials out in deep waters where they will be forever lost.

As global climate change leads to ever greater weather extremes, there isn't a moment to lose in shifting the nation's priorities toward policies that preserve and enhance the natural buffers that protect our homes and other assets from the raging Pacific Ocean.

Bets against Mother Nature rarely pay off in the long run - whether it's constricting the Mississippi River, or damming up the mighty Columbia. The cost when disaster strikes is astronomical. And we have a rare chance to learn from the mistakes of other regions.


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