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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: A few years ago, in the Sawtooth 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, to a place named after a species, Redfish Lake. Locals called the fish Lonesome Larry. In times past, Larry would have had thousands of companions, but this fish died without helping a mate to spawn. Nature dictates that many species of salmon must return to the very stream where they were born to breed. No other place will do. Like the Snake River Sockeye, dozens of the salmon runs throughout the Northwest that were once key to both indigenous and settler communities are already gone or endangered or threatened. Salmon have been displaced by everything from logging, fishing, and agriculture to urban growth and hydroelectric dams. This week, Living on Earth begins a special series: Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest. In our first report, Sandy Tolan travels down 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: They were a pretty pink color, as they were going up the river to spawn. 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 Dalls 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. And they pulled out and they got up on the bank to witness, as the water come up. 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. It isn't anything that the original "Roll on Columbia River" is.

(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. Lake Celilo, one of a series of long pools, backs up behind concrete, a long resting snake stretching into the distance.

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

TOLAN: Below, on the downriver side of the Dalls 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. Today the churning waters below are a small suggestion of what the river was like when Lewis and Clark arrived in 1805. William Clark was appalled by the river's horrid appearance: this agitated gut swelling, boiling and whorling in every direction. When the expedition rode down the Dalls in their dugout canoes, the Indians thought they were crazy.

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 Dalls 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 war planes 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. Patches of desert poke through. Cheat grass and sagebrush and rock. 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. TNR's wheat alone, Ron Reiman says, is enough for three-and- a-half million loaves of bread. Their potatoes would feed a city of 400,000. 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, and what's happening on the Columbia, with all the dams and all the other habitat problems that exist, 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 Jensen 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. It's habitat for the salmon and we've destroyed where they live. How can we expect the runs not to diminish when 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, Lure 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 feel a tremendous loss of that. And 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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