Water-based recreation is an important economic activity on the Columbia River, where recreation is a specifically authorized purpose of several of the dams. Recreational use and development is authorized at all of the federal dams under federal legislation such as the Federal Water Projects Recreation Act of 1965 and the Flood Control Act of 1944. Fishing and boating are the most popular forms of water-based recreation on the Columbia, but windsurfing, particularly in the perpetually windy Columbia River Gorge, is rapidly growing in popularity and economic importance to Gorge communities.

A 1993 study that was part of a federal review of Columbia River Basin dams identified the types and relative popularity of different types of water-based recreation on the river. A telephone survey of 831 residents in the Columbia River Basin tested participation rates for water-based recreation, demographic characteristics, trip information by destination and attitudes toward recreation site characteristics. The survey showed that 68 percent of the respondents participated in water-based recreation in the previous 12 months, the mean age of these people was 39.7 years, and fishing and boating were the most popular activities. May, June, July and August were the most popular months for water-based recreation — no surprise, really.

While proximity to one’s home was an important factor in determining where the respondents went, the survey showed the most popular destinations were Lake Roosevelt behind Grand Coulee Dam, Lake Umatilla Behind John Day Dam, the Columbia River behind Bonneville Dam, the reservoir behind Dworshak Dam in Idaho and the reservoirs behind Hungry Horse and Libby dams in Montana. Interestingly, when asked what was the most important characteristic that makes a particular site attractive, the most frequent response was environmental quality. Site fees, proximity to home and whether the site is frequently crowded also were important, but not as important as environmental quality. Accessibility to the water also was an important characteristic. Access is more difficult at the large storage reservoirs when they are lowered for flood control purposes in the fall. Access also can be a problem at the run-of-river dams when reservoirs drop because of low flows. The federal survey suggested dredging may be an acceptable option at the more popular boat ramps in order to keep them open when the water levels drop.

Fishing and boating remain the most popular recreational pursuits on the Columbia’s reservoirs, but in the Columbia River Gorge windsurfing has become a major economic factor. On windy spring and summer days, which by definition is most spring and summer days, the river is alive with the brightly colored sails of windsurfers skimming the wave tops. Major competitions attract windsurfers from throughout the world; hotels and campgrounds fill; prices for real estate near the river (where urban development is allowed under the National Scenic Area legislation) in Hood River County, Oregon, and Klickitat County, Washington, soared in the 1990s with the advent of windsurfing.

The scene is much different in British Columbia, where fishing and boating on Columbia River reservoirs also is popular but most of the river is more remote than in the United States. With the exception of the Arrow Lakes, the river also is narrower and faster-flowing in most places. The upper Columbia between Kinbasket Reservoir, behind Mica Dam, and the headwaters at Columbia Lake is undammed. With the exception of the two headwaters lakes, Columbia and Windermere, the river meanders for more than 100 miles through an internationally known wetlands area that is rich with wildlife and, by virtue of its location on the Pacific Flyway, migratory water fowl. Here, water-based recreation leans more toward canoeing, kayaking, camping, wildlife photography and ecotourism, a striking contrast to the mile-wide, windy sailboard playground of the Columbia River Gorge 900 miles downstream.