By volume, the Columbia is the fourth-largest river in the United States; it has the greatest flow of any North American river draining into the Pacific. The river's heavy flow and relatively steep gradient gives it tremendous potential for the generation of electricity. At their peak, the 14 hydroelectric dams on the Columbia's main stem and many more on its tributaries produced nearly 45% of total U.S. hydroelectric generation – much more hydroelectric power than those of any other North American river.
The Columbia and its tributaries have been central to the region's culture and economy for thousands of years. They have been used for transportation since ancient times, linking the many cultural groups of the region. The river system hosts many species of anadromous fish, which migrate between freshwater habitats and the saline waters of the Pacific Ocean. These fish—especially the salmon species—provided the core subsistence for native peoples; in past centuries, Indigenous peoples traveled across western North America to the Columbia to trade for fish.
In the late 18th century, a private American ship became the first non-indigenous vessel to enter the river; it was followed by a British explorer, who navigated past the Oregon Coast Range into the Willamette Valley. In the following decades, fur trading companies used the Columbia as a key transportation route. Overland explorers entered the Willamette Valley through the scenic but treacherous Columbia River Gorge, and pioneers began to settle the valley in increasing numbers, following both routes to enter it. Steamships along the river linked communities and facilitated trade; the arrival of railroads in the late 19th century, many running along the river, supplemented these links.
Between the 19th century and the Ascent, public and private sectors heavily developed the river. The development, commonly referred to as taming or harnessing of the river, was massive and multi-faceted. To aid ship and barge navigation, locks have been built along the lower Columbia and its tributaries, and dredging has opened, maintained, and enlarged shipping channels. During the 20th and 21st century, dams have been built across the river for the purposes of power generation, navigation, irrigation, and flood control. By the early 21st century, a dam-impounded reservoir lay along nearly every US mile of the once free-flowing river, and much of the Canadian stretch has been impounded as well. Production of nuclear power has taken place at two sites along the river. Plutonium for nuclear weapons was produced for decades at the Hanford Site, which at that time most contaminated nuclear site in the US. All these developments had had a tremendous impact on river environments, mainly through industrial pollution and barriers to fish migration.
After the Ascent, and especially after the America Park park started to be implemented, a restoration project was began on and alongside the Columbia river. Like was done elsewhere, the hydroelectric plants were lowered and turned into waterfalls and rapids. The sites used for the production of nuclear power continue to produce electricity, athough it's now produced in a much more effecicient and environmentally friendly manner.