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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Point of No Return, Part 1: A River Tamed

Air Date: Week of

Producer Sandy Tolan travels the Columbia and Snake Rivers for the story of the transformation of these rivers, with gigantic hydroelectric dams replacing dozens of salmon runs. There are now intense debates going on in Idaho and Oregon and Washington about what may have been lost as well as gained.


CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood with an encore edition of Living on Earth. A few years ago, at Redfish Lake in the mountains of Central Idaho, a single Sockeye salmon made its return from the sea. It had traveled hundreds of miles up the Columbia, Snake, and Salmon Rivers. Locals called the fish Lonesome Larry. In the past, Larry would have had thousands of companions, but this fish died alone. It's becoming a familiar story. Over the last century, fewer and fewer salmon have returned from the Pacific to spawn. Many runs have disappeared completely. People have caught too many of the fish, destroyed their habitat, and blocked their way with dams. And with the fish, a vital part of the culture and economy of local communities has gone, too. This week, Living on Earth begins a special rebroadcast of our series Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest. In our first report, Sandy Tolan travels the Columbia River system and considers its transformation by ribbons of concrete.

(Flowing water)

TOLAN: Jay Minthorn was a young man when the waters began to rise.

MINTHORN: And as we was fishing, you could begin to see, below the fall, as to where the water begin to back up, and the waters begin to slow down. You didn't seen the beautiful boiling waters. You didn't see that.

TOLAN: At Celilo Falls, back in the 1940s, Mr. Minthorn's father taught him to fish for salmon. Perched on wooden scaffolds, they'd reach into the raging Columbia River with dip nets made of hemp. Spring Chinook Salmon would jump at the falls, flashes of red leaping up in silver froth. They were returning from the Pacific, finding their way home to their natal streams to spawn and die. They were called the June hogs, 40- and 60-pound fish.

MINTHORN: I remember seeing what they called the silver sides, the blue backs, many Steelheads, the little Jack salmon.

TOLAN: Jay Minthorn's father had learned to net the Chinook from his father, and he from his, and on and on back in time. Columbia River Indians fished here for at least 400 generations, until the waters rose behind the Dalles Dam, barely one generation ago.

(Lapping water)

MINTHORN: And you could see these people, knowing the water was coming, you could begin to see them get their nets and begin to leave. But they left their scaffolds, just like a grave marker. Then you could see some of the scaffolds begin to tear off and float down the river. And when it got close to where I was fishing, I just threw my net in the river, and that was it. I walked off.

TOLAN: Celilo Falls was drowned on March 10, 1957, over the protests of nearly all the region's natives: the Nez Perce, the Umatilla, the Yakima, the Warm Springs tribes, and others. This part of the Columbia had been a center of native commerce for thousands of years. In its place, a new vision was rising: to harness the Columbia with a chain of dams. To provide work and growth and security and power for the new residents of the region.

(Guitar; Woody Guthrie sings: "Green Douglas fir, where the waters cut through. Down the wild mountains and canyons...")

MINTHORN: Everybody thought that was a wonderful song. It used to be on the radio and everything. There was records and everything. Roll on Columbia, the mighty Columbia. It's a manmade Columbia River today.

(Guthrie: "Roll on Columbia, roll on. Roll on Columbia, roll on..." Fade to radio communication)

TOLAN: Five thousand feet above the gorge carved out by a wild Columbia, in Jane Niccolai's one-engine Cessna, we look down upon the engineered river.

NICCOLAI: The river is dammed all the way across. There are some islands that all the dams kind of hook up across to, and there's ...

TOLAN: Below, on the downriver side of the Dalles Dam 80 miles east of Portland, white water spills from spinning turbines, making power for the entire Columbia Basin and beyond. The Columbia and its tributaries drain a region larger than New England and New York State combined, from Canada to Northern California, from the Rockies in Montana to the Pacific, most of it powering through this dam.

NICCOLAI: You can see there's not a lot of water movement, and the shoreline is right up to the edges.

TOLAN: Today, behind the monolith of the Dalles Dam, it's still and glassy, a mirror in which we can see our own reflection. But we cannot see what was drowned, Celilo Falls, beneath the tranquil surface.

NICCOLAI: The bathtub is full.

(Guthrie: "On up the river, a grand little dam. Mightiest thing ever built by a man...")

TOLAN: Woody Guthrie's ballad was an anthem for a new era, and to the working men who made real President Franklin Roosevelt's vision. The Columbia's steep drop was perfect for hydropower, ten times steeper than the Mississippi and just over half the length. The river, FDR said, must be developed by the nation and for the nation.

(Guthrie: "Your power is turning our darkness to dawn, roll on Columbia, roll on...")

TOLAN: Electricity from the Columbia built American warplanes during World War II. It fueled the top secret atomic weapons project at Hanford nuclear reservation. President Truman said without that power, winning the war would have been almost impossible. After the war, ever more taxpayer financed dams provided cheap power, fueling growth for Boeing, aluminum companies, and millions of new migrants to the Northwest. The dams made the Columbia River system navigable, sending wheat down the Snake from Lewiston, Idaho, to the Pacific. And water pumped from the tame river turned half a million Northwest acres from a desert to a bread basket.


TOLAN: On moist dirt at TNR Farms a mile from the Columbia, we stand before a 400-foot sprinkler, a giant metal centipede, arched silver back, creeping across the land on feet of black tires.

REIMAN: This will be sweet corn. We're just working this ground, yeah.

TOLAN: Before the dams, Ron Reiman's 5,000 acres were called Poverty Flats. No longer.

REIMAN: These are potatoes here. These are some Ranger Russets. You see them starting to push through the ground.


TOLAN: Mr. Reiman takes us toward the river. It's treeless, but for a lone juniper on a far hill. We move down low, irrigated hills, tan, dark brown, rust, all freshly planted. At the bottom, we reach the source of the abundance.


TOLAN: We get out at an irrigation pump house above the pool formed by Ice Harbor Dam.

REIMAN: I think it would be great if everybody had a river system like this, because this is put to a lot of different uses. It's not just for a farm or for irrigation. It's for everybody.

TOLAN: The dream of a harnessed river is embedded here. The pumps churn the Columbia into an underground irrigation web, 30 miles of mainline. Mr. Reiman's family spent two-and-a-half million dollars installing it when the reservoir filled back in 1975. Now, Mr. Reiman works the pumps with the click of a mouse in his office. Infrared aerial photography monitors his watering patterns.

(Humming and fans)

REIMAN: The water is very important, and I'm not sure if it was Teddy Roosevelt said that we only have just enough out in the West to fight over. Unfortunately, that's true.

TOLAN: But here in the Columbia Basin, the biggest fight was decided long ago, in favor of the dams.

REIMAN: There's disadvantages to the dams, absolutely. You've created some slower water than there was before. But you've created a whole new ecosystem that supports a lot more people and wildlife than it ever did. The dams are what built this. Our hydroelectric power is what's built the Pacific Northwest. Washington, Idaho, Oregon, clear into Montana.

TOLAN: And the power is cheap. For decades, Federal subsidies have brought water and power to farms and industry at a fraction of their real cost. Farm lobbyists say these benefits are crucial to help farmers grow food for America and the world. But Mr. Reiman and his neighbors who irrigate from the lower Snake represent just a tiny portion of the farm lands watered by the Columbia system. Yet the four lower Snake dams are increasingly blamed for salmon decline. And now, a generation after the last dam went in, shifting values in the region prompt a new battle. Advocates for endangered species and tribal treaty fishing rights and commercial and sports fisheries ask: Are the benefits to farm and industry worth the loss of the Steelhead and Chinook salmon? And the culture and livelihoods of the people who depended on them?

RAMSEY: You look at the Columbia, with all the dams and all the other habitat problems, you think, well gee, we're talking about extermination. And that's forever.

TOLAN: Sixty miles downstream from Ron Reiman, in a fishing tackle factory along the river bank, Buzz Ramsey and Phil Jenson spell it out: wild salmon populations have plummeted since the era of dams began. Some runs have declined 90 percent, others have been wiped out completely. Ask a dozen people in the Northwest and you might hear as many reasons why. Logging above the stream banks, urban development, over-fishing, changes in the ocean. But many biologists, along with sports fishing businessmen like Phil Jenson, say the biggest problem is the dams.

JENSON: When we pinpointed it, it's habitat. We block the spawning grounds, we silt it in, we destroy it with pollutants?

TOLAN: We look at the picture window to the lethargic river. In front of us stands a display of fishing lures. Phil's father built this company, Luhr Jenson, and put it here to make tackle for salmon. But Buzz Ramsey says for most runs of Columbia and Snake River salmon, he hasn't been able to fish from these banks for decades.

RAMSEY: When you see it slipping out of your fingers, and you think that I'm never going to be able to experience that again, and my children are never going to be able to experience this, you wonder, what's going wrong with this world? I mean, if the fish stock is in jeopardy, we're willing to stop fishing and put it on hold. But after a fishery has been closed for 20 or 30 years, you start asking yourself, shouldn't somebody else maybe stop what they're doing and let these salmon recover? And those industries need to change how they're doing business. Every citizen in the Northwest needs to change how they're doing business. And we need to recover salmon.

TOLAN: Wild salmon still come back to a few select places like the streams near the Hanford Reach, the only major undammed portion of the Columbia. In many places, though, it's too late to save the runs. The human impact is irreversible. But sports fishermen like Buzz Ramsey and commercial fishers, the Columbia River tribes, and environmental groups say there's at least one place where changes to the dam's system could make a big difference to the salmon. Many scientists say the best opportunity for recovery may lie along a crucial 140-mile-long stretch of the lower Snake River. They want the government to breach the four lower Snake dams, restoring a free-flowing river. The proposal is causing an uproar in the inland Northwest.



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