Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Are They Really Dead?

I'm reading a book called A River Lost: The life and death of the Columbia, by Blaine Harden.

Mr. Harden is a native of Washington who laments the changes that have changed the nature of the Columbia River from the pristine state that Lewis and Clark found to the present day. He is especially critical of the Bureau of Reclamation and the work performed during the Great Depression of the 1930's when the Grand Coulee Dam and other dams were built. The engineers at the GC Dam were cavalier about the effects the dam would have on salmon, native Americans, and the price we would all pay for pouring water into what had been an inhospitable desert in and around Grant County. 

While the economic miracle that followed cannot be denied, now 70 years later the costs of this change, in Harden's treatise, are not worth the benefits. He laments the sense of entitlement the farmers of central Washington have with respect to the water they receive from the dams, while these same farmers openly detest the federal government and the "meddling influence" of the West-siders.  The hypocrisy he finds ridiculous.

As a son of the State of Washington and as a person who grew up through the development and construction of the dams on the Snake River, I share the sense of history that Mr. Harden refers to in his narrative. I used to visit the very bottom of the Snake River Canyon when I was a boy, camping with the Boy Scouts in an area that was slated to be flooded when the dams were completed. I have driven the road in this same area today that was built just above the full pool level between Wawaii and Clarkston. I recall the look the rim had in the winter where we were relatively warm in the bottom of the treeless and barren canyon, when the snow above was beautiful and glistened in the morning sun. The change from then to now is stark and dramatic.

I used the ferry at Lyons Ferry before the dam was built, when the "ferry" was a rickety platform connected to a wire rope, where a fin dipped into the Snake River was tilted towards the far shore so that the movement of the water would propel the 2-3 cars that would fit on the platform from one side to the other. Today Lyons Ferry has a high rise bridge that spans this gap, and you can travel from the south to the north side of the river at a comfortable 60 MPH in your car, never knowing how precarious it felt just 50 years ago to make this same crossing.

Lewiston ID is a port, just the same as Everett is a port. Barge traffic from Lewiston allows grain and minerals to pass hundreds of miles to Portland and Astoria through the locks, down the Snake, and into the Columbia. Harden makes the point that this could only happen if the dams and dredging were built with public funds, and the beneficiaries are farmers and mining companies that have paid next to nothing for this service. Without this water-based cartage method it would cost roughly $0.10 more per bushel to carry wheat and lentils to market using trucks and trains. Is the loss of the "Wild River" and the loss of the salmon runs in the Snake River worth the seemingly minor cost savings this offers to a few?

If I were to mention just a few of the things we have lost with the development of the Columbia and Snake Rivers, I might list:
1. Archeological evidence of native Americans in the Snake and Columbia River basins
2. Loss of salmon runs and habitat, esp. in the upper reaches of the rivers
3. Loss of "lifestyle" for native Americans dependent on salmon

If I were to list things we have gained, I might list:
1. Flood control on the rivers involved
2. Electrical power at the lowest cost in North America
3. Power to drive the manufacturing economy of the PNW, esp. in WWII
4. Cheap water transportation
5. Recreation on "pools" instead of raging rivers
6. Irrigation of semi-arid lands that would not otherwise sustain agriculture
7. Farming and manufacturing that sustain communities and economies that would not otherwise exist

So, what is the question? I think it is our old friend, What is the impact of so many people in the world? If we are going to have so many people we are going to need power, and water, and food, and communities, and to provide these we need to harness the natural resources we have and turn them to our mutual benefit.

What do you think?

Ps: Shall we organize a trip to eastern Washington to see all these wonders? I would love to lead a group on a 2-3 day trip!

1 comment:

  1. I tried to put this on your blog for BQ but it won't let me...

    In grad school one of my colleagues did a thesis on the "high dam; low dam" controversy then roiling on the Snake River dams. His conclusion was that low dams would satisfy the navigation and power needs and do the least damage to the fish runs. The dams are all high. And Paul Helsing told them they would regret it.

    One of your great uncles bought an allotment out in the basin before water got there. He was Howard's brother in law and a plumbing contractor in Seattle. Anyhow, when he retired he moved from Bellevue to the basin and developed the farm. Eventually Howard and Ressie took it over and lived there a few years. You were there at least once that I recall. The Coulee Dam project employed all of Pat Smith, and his brothers during the 1930's and one of my uncles worked on the dams until he retired.

    A cousin of mine married a Greek from Pennewahwah(?) The Greek family was large and so was the farm along the Snake that supported them. They had a BIG apricot orchard but raised hay and ran cattle too. Anyhow, when the govt wanted the farm my cousin held title to the farm and he was reluctant to give it up. He refused every offer to buy it and fought the condemnation proceedings at every turn. Finally the govt had an airtight case for public domain and there seemed no way out. Well, not quite: If the seller of the condemned farm won't show up at the closing, the deal won't close. The govt didn't want a public fight about this but Little Goose dam was several years behind schedule because this cussed Greek was screwing around. One of his ploys was to accept a promotion at Richfield oil and a move to Salt Lake City. He failed to leave a forwarding address and they were such bunglers they couldn't find him. But, alas, his family revolted. They loved Spokane and hated SLC. So Sam relented and they moved back home. The Feds found him and took him to the court house to clear his mind about who was the boss. Sam signed but he gave them the finger as he left the conference room. Oh, yes: Sam was about five feet tall and weighed maybe 100 pounds.

    Have a good day