The Daily Bread: A River Damned

Sculpture honoring the workers who built Grand Coulee Dam.

Photo by Peter Marbach
Sculpture honoring the workers who built Grand Coulee Dam.



In the nearly three years I have been documenting the entire Columbia and people of the river, one thing has become abundantly clear. It is less a river but more a series of slack water lakes made into a perfect machine, reverse engineered to benefit corporate interests.

This is not the river that Lewis and Clark discovered. The Columbia died over 80 years ago and came back to life as a highway of commerce. At the epicenter of this life and death story is the Grand Coulee Dam.

There are 14 dams on the main stem, but Grand Coulee stands out for its impact on salmon, tribes, and all people living upstream in northeastern Washington state and all of the river in British Columbia.

The origins of the conception of the Grand Coulee Dam began with a group of small town businessmen in the dustbowl town of Ephrata, Wash. Lamenting the poor conditions for growing crops in the scablands, an idea was hatched to create a dam where ice age glacial activity had already carved out a perfect, U-shaped notch through basalt rock that one engineer considered a perfect, water-tight location. In addition, a bountiful local source of aggregate, a river stone that would be a key ingredient in making concrete for the dam, was available in unlimited supply. Rufus Woods, owner of the Wenatchee World newspaper, got wind of this scheme and promoted it relentlessly as a miracle remedy to cure all economic woes in the region.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt absorbed this plan into his New Deal project, a depression-busting plan to create thousands of living wage jobs across America. In the nearly 10 years it took to build Grand Coulee Dam, over 7,000 jobs were created at the site. FDR was fascinated with harnessing the power of the Columbia. After observing the Columbia by train in the late 1920s, he said, “I can’t help but wonder about all that water running unchecked to the sea. The river must be developed by the nation for the nation.”

But Roosevelt needed to convince skeptical east coast politicians and engineers. An idea was hatched to hire Woody Guthrie, the poet and folk balladeer, to write pro-dam propaganda songs. He penned 26 songs, but the one that blended the power of the river, and the dominant culture belief of manifest destiny, was “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On.” The song still has a nostalgic hold, even among people I know to be friends to the environment and supportive of tribes and salmon restoration.

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When World War II broke out, criticism of the dam all but disappeared. It became a national treasure, cranking out electricity for aluminum plants and America’s war planes. It also fed electricity to the Manhattan Project in Hanford, the secret site where the atomic bomb as built that killed over 200,000 civilians in Japan.

One of the most egregious aspects of the history of Grand Coulee is the disregard of the impact on tribal culture and the elimination of what was once the greatest Pacific salmon runs in North America. Tribal elders tell stories of wiping away tears as they collected the dead fish who continued to hurl themselves against the concrete structure. Myths have been morphed into fact that the dam was too steep to install fish ladders.

Bonneville Dam, on the lower Columbia, was built at the same time as Grand Coulee. Bonneville included fish passage, so why didn’t the Bureau of Reclamation do the same at Grand Coulee? In 1933, the Bureau recommended a flume and an elevator to carry fish over Grand Coulee. During the building of the dam, a ladder was constructed to allow salmon and steelhead to cross over the dam. Built from logs, it formed seven pools that successfully moved the fish. Ultimately, all ideas, including trapping and hauling juveniles migrating downstream to a release point, and trapping returning adult fish to be released above the dam, were rejected by U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries Frank Bell, citing the height and steep angle of the dam, uncertainty of outcomes and cost. But the Bureau considered a more gradual slope, which would have allowed juvenile salmon to survive the fall over the dam. The Bureau simply was not inclined to spend money on fish.

From Memorial Day the through Labor Day, Grand Coulee Dam provides a family friendly video and laser light show narration about the dam. It is equal parts nostalgia and contemporary wizardry. Water is released over the spillway, forming a white backdrop used to project the film and laser show. While the narration mostly sings the praises of reshaping the west by providing billions of gallons of water for irrigation for farming, it does acknowledge that the dam impacted towns upstream and tribal culture. It does not say that this forced tribes to watch their ancestor’s burial grounds and the sacred Kettle Falls fishing site become submerged forever, nor does it mention that the dam wiped out one of the greatest salmon runs in the world since time immemorial.

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Last week, I had the privilege of presenting my “Columbia River — Source to Sea” project at the Lake Roosevelt Forum, an annual event that deals with current issues related to the section of the Columbia above Grand Coulee. It was with some irony that I found myself sharing the stage with folks from the Bureau of Reclamation, Bonneville Power Administration, and Army Corps of Engineers, entities that have had a significant impact on the Columbia. Conference staff suggested that I keep my talk free of anything controversial, and just tell stories. And so I did, with most of my stories about encounters with First Nations and tribal elders mourning the loss of salmon and the impact to their culture.

Throughout the conference, there was a consistent theme of the possible, that there is no reason why salmon cannot be successfully re-introduced to the Upper Columbia. The biggest obstacle is the will to do so, for entities representing the U.S. and Canada in treaty re-negotiations, to take the moral high ground and put profits and politics aside. In closing remarks at a panel discussion, the words of Colville tribal member and director of UCUT, DR Michel, rang true.

“If we can look for water on Mars, then we can get a fish over a dam.”



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