Persistent hydrophobic organic compounds are of concern in the Columbia River because they have been correlated with adverse effects on wildlife. We analysed samples from nine main-stem and six tributary sites throughout the Columbia River Basin (Washington and Oregon) for polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, dibenzofurans, polychlorinated biphenyls, organochlorine pesticides, and priority-pollutant polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Because these compounds may have important biological consequences at aqueous concentrations well below the detection limits associated with conventional sampling methods, we used semipermeable-membrane devices to sample water and achieved parts-per-quintillion detection limits. All of these compound classes were prevalent within the basin, but concentrations of many analytes were highest in the vicinity of Portland-Vancouver, indicating that the Willamette subbasin-and perhaps the urban area in particular-is an important source of these compounds. Data collected during basin low-flow conditions in 1997 and again during basin high-flow conditions in 1998 indicate that in-stream processes such as dilution by relatively clean inflow, and flow through island hyporheic zones may be important mechanisms for attenuating dissolved concentrations of hydrophobic compounds.