Unfolding the Map
The gorge of the Columbia River and its tributaries is great for damming, and William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) runs across the first of the dams, Bonneville Dam, as he travels upriver in Ghost Dancing. I will look at the costs and benefits of dams, from their clean energy production to their social and environmental effects. Go to the map to locate North Bonneville in the context of the Blue Highways journey.
"At North Bonneville, the first of the immense dams that the Corps of Engineers has built on the Columbia at about fifty-mile intervals, thereby turning one of the greatest rivers of the hemisphere into staircase lakes buzzing with outboards....
"....Dams are necessary, the Corps maintains, and you can't argue necessity; nevertheless, I don't think Lewis or Clark or the old Chinooks would care much for Bonneville. But then, like the wild river, they are dead."
Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 7
North Bonneville, Washington
As I wrote in my previous post, the 1930s were an era of massive public works projects put in place by the Roosevelt administration to help pull the US out of the Great Depression. The idea was that if government spent a lot of money to put people to work building roads, bridges and dams (as well as commissioning other types of public works), this would put money into the pockets of ordinary Americans, who would spend the money and thereby increase demand in the economy. This would, in turn, stimulate greater investment as businesses restarted or opened to meet that demand.
The series of dams built along the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest were part of a number of these projects. The idea was simple if not massive. If the massive water flow through the Columbia was harnessed, it could provide power for an entire region. Construction of the dams would put thousands of people to work and put money in their pockets as well as stimulate business. The result was a series of what LHM calls a series of "staircase lakes."
The dams have certainly provided power. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, about 80 percent of the electricity in the state of Washington is created by hydropower dams on the Columbia and its tributary rivers. With this electricity has come development, in fact, without the electricity one might be able to say that Washington would be a rural state with little industry. Folk-singer Woody Guthrie, commissioned by the Bonneville Power Administration during the construction of the Columbia dams to write songs praising their utility, fully endorsed this type of development during the Depression. To him, dams meant industry and industry meant work for millions of economically distressed Americans. Other nations have used their water resources to spur development and provide their energy needs. Rising economic power China is the largest producer of hydroelectric power - and its Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River has the largest electricity generating capacity and is second in overall output to Itaipu Dam between Brazil and Paraguay because of seasonal water flow variance.
Of course, dams have their downsides also. Advocates of wild rivers, or rivers in their natural state, lament the loss of so many rivers to this type of development. LHM makes a nod to this view when he states that Lewis and Clark, and the old Chinooks who fished the Columbia River, would not like the Bonneville Dam. However, it is ironic that at least in the case of the Bonneville Dam, it is situated near where an ancient landslide made a natural dam that blocked the Columbia River for some centuries, until it eventually broke through and washed away the debris.
In order to settle and develop rivers, the rivers had to be tamed somewhat, but wild rivers left to their devices were a seasonal provider of river sediment which enriched the native soils and created fertile ecosystems for animals and humans. Today, the mantra is to put levees, dikes and dams in place so that the rivers stay in their places, at some environmental cost.
Another downside is that dams can impede the seasonal run of spawning fish, even if accommodations are made for them. Bonneville Dam, for instance, has a fish ladder to allow spawning salmon to run past the dam. LHM argues in this chapter, however, that 10 percent of salmon are lost and fish suffer from a variety of maladies caused by high nitrogen content that the dam's spillways introduce into the water.
The flooding of areas behind the dam also comes at great cost. Some of the cost is due to the loss of irreplaceable natural features. When the Glen Canyon Dam was finished in 1966, it flooded a stunning area of slot canyons and other geological features that will never been seen again. The building of O'Shaughnessy Dam in California for San Francisco's drinking water supply was opposed by John Muir and other naturalists. When they lost the battle, California lost a valley, Hetch Hetchy, that by all accounts was as stunning as its neighbor Yosemite Valley. Communities can be affected as well. There have been many accounts written of the 1000 towns, villages and even cities that have been or are being submerged by the Three Gorges Dam, which has displaced over one million people. Even dam projects in the United States came at social cost - some 3000 people were evicted from their homes because of the Columbia's Grand Coulee Dam, and the town of Roosevelt was lost due to the construction of the John Day Dam on the Columbia. There are many other "drowned towns" around the United States.
The other cost can be a way of life. When the building of the Columbia River dams disrupted fish runs, it also disrupted Native American traditional fishing grounds. Since a primary source of food and income was affected, these communities have felt wide ranging social effects from the loss of this primary livelihood.
Dams are also popular politically - it's a long-term project that a congressman or senator can bring home to his or her constituents. To have the Army Corps of Engineers or the Bureau of Reclamation come into a state, plan and build a dam, and bring in federal dollars for the project can be a great short-term economic stimulus and gives politicians something to brag about at election time. Yet there can be costs to that as well. Though the New Orleans tragedy was not caused by a dam, the Army Corps of Engineers appears to be responsible, though it has denied this, for some catastrophic levee failures in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina due to a lack of oversight. Other issues include the "greening" of places not meant to be green and the allocation of water. Despite some spectacular dams in the western United States that have put communities in the middle of deserts and made millions of acre feet of water available for agricultural use, the Southwestern United States is and will remain a desert. The effects of dwindling water supplies throughout the southwestern states due to drought and overuse are only now beginning to be felt. There are some that forecast that a cause of some major future world conflicts will be over access to fresh water - just watch what happens in the Middle East as Israel and its Arab neighbors all fight with each other over access to water.
"Roll on, Columbia, roll on" sang Woody Guthrie in the 1930s. His was an optimistic look at all of the benefits the river could bring if we just dammed it and used it. In the early 1980s, when LHM was passing through, there was a budding sense that maybe we'd dammed too much. As we now pass through the early part of the 21st century, dams are a conundrum. They provide clean energy but still have environmental and social consequences. Some want to "undam" the rivers, but others want to continue to use this natural resource until we can find other cost-effective clean energy measures as alternatives to coal and oil. Perhaps we're not too damned using dams, but maybe we'll discover another way so that the rivers one day can again run wild.
I mentioned him in the post so I might as well use him as the musical interlude. Here's Woody Guthrie, the famous American folk-singer, with Roll On Columbia.
If you want to know more about North Bonneville
Next up: White Salmon and Appleton, Washington