The Columbia River: not eternally dammed

A documentary on PBS this Tuesday night, based on an earlier book by Blaine Harden about the Grand Coulee Dam, prompts him to reflect on ironies and some hopeful new developments on the mighty 'River Lost.'

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"A River Lost" by Blaine Harden

A documentary on PBS this Tuesday night, based on an earlier book by Blaine Harden about the Grand Coulee Dam, prompts him to reflect on ironies and some hopeful new developments on the mighty 'River Lost.'

Blaine Harden, who grew up in central Washington while his father worked on mammoth construction projects, became a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post in eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and northeast Asia. Back in Seattle, he's been a busy contributor to the New York Times, the Economist, and public television. This week he's in the news for a harrowing book about North Korea's brutal prison system, “Escape from Camp 14.”

By coincidence, an earlier book of Harden's has just been re-released in time for a documentary in the PBS “American Experience” series. The TV show, called “Grand Coulee Dam,” will be broadcast tonight (April 3) at 8 pm; it's based on Harden's book, A River Lost: the Life and Death of the Columbia (W.W. Norton, $15.95).

Originally published 16 years ago, A River Lost recounts the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in the 1930s. It can be read either as a compelling account of human enterprise and ingenuity (the taming of a natural resource to create cheap electric power) or a morality tale of human arrogance (the destruction of a great river for private profit). Harden's father helped build the dam, helped bring irrigation to the parched desert, helped raise the standard of living of thousands of farm families, and helped produce aluminum for wartime airplanes and power for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

But by the time Harden returned home, after 20 years of overseas assignments, Grand Coulee was increasingly seen as having killed the mighty river, destroying its salmon runs and trampeling the treaty rights of Native tribes. The Columbia itself, once a majestic and mighty waterway, had been reduced to plumbing.

In a review of the book in the summer of 1996, the New York Times called it  “a scathing indictment of technocratic hubris, and of those who play what Mr. Harden calls 'the river game' for shortsighted economic gain.”

No need to worry about salmon runs: Grand Coulee didn't have any fish ladders, and the dam pre-dated the Endangered Species Act at any rate. Native tribes? Piffle. With casual racism, the manager of one of the irrigation districts blames the river's condition on the impoverished Indians for overfishing.

Into this arena of passionate but mismatched interests steps an old-fashioned lawman, federal Judge James A. Redden. From his courtroom in Portland, the 81-year-old Redden rules in favor of the voiceless fish and the disenfrachised Natives. Taken aback, the Establishment digs its heels and virtually refuses to comply. Not just the Bush White House, either. The Obama Administration has been every bit as protective of irrigation districts and power companies. Still, some accommodations have been made, with encouraging consequences.

Spillways on the Columbia's dams have allowed more fish to migrate. At Judge Redden's insistence scientists, rather than power managers, have gained the ability to influence the operation of the river. The Bonneville Power Administration and the US Corps of Engineers are now required to reduce power generation and spill a lot more water (and baby salmon) over the dams. The results are heartening: unexpectedly good survival rates for salmon migration.

“When I reported on the river in the early 1990s, no one knew or dared predict that spill would prove so useful [to survival of the salmon],” Harden wrote to me in an email last week. As a result, Harden says, “Indians up and down the Columbia-Snake are in a much better place. They may be able to hang on to the traditional culture and food. That is a great and noble thing for our government and civil society to do — and I didn't believe it was possible when the book [first] came out.”

The irony is that the West Side environmentalists have joined the biggest users of the Columbia's power. Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have built power-hungry server farms in eastern Washington and Oregon, giving “nearly everyone on Earth who sends e-mail, uses a smartphone, or streams video a personal stake in the damming of the Columbia.”

But hydro has found new, unexpected alliances with solar, wind power, and natural gas. Coal-power electricity is likely to be phased out in this part of the country, which is good for the planet. Altogether, Harden says, it is a far happier story than the prison camps of North Korea.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).