A River Lost : The Life and Death of the Columbiaby Blaine Harden
"A River Lost is superbly reported and written with clarity, insight, and great skill."Washington Post Book World
After a two-decade absence, Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden returned to his small-town birthplace in the Pacific Northwest to follow the rise and fall of the West's most thoroughly conquered river.
Harden's hometown, Moses Lake,
"A River Lost is superbly reported and written with clarity, insight, and great skill."Washington Post Book World
After a two-decade absence, Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden returned to his small-town birthplace in the Pacific Northwest to follow the rise and fall of the West's most thoroughly conquered river.
Harden's hometown, Moses Lake, Washington, could not have existed without massive irrigation schemes. His father, a Depression migrant trained as a welder, helped build dams and later worked at the secret Hanford plutonium plant. Now he and his neighbors, once considered patriots, stand accused of killing the river.
As Blaine Harden traveled the Columbia-by barge, car, and sometimes on foot-his past seemed both foreign and familiar. A personal narrative of rediscovery joined a narrative of exploitation: of Native Americans, of endangered salmon, of nuclear waste, and of a once-wild river now tamed to puddled remains.
Part history, part memoir, part lament, "this is a brave and precise book," according to the New York Times Book Review. "It must not have been easy for Blaine Harden to find himself turning his journalistic weapons against his own heritage, but he has done the conscience of his homeland a great service."
As the son of a worker who helped build the Grand Coulee Dam and later worked at the Hanford nuclear site, Washington Post correspondent Harden (Africa, 1990) easily elicits candid opinions from the bargemen, farmers, and nuclear engineers who owe their prosperity to the federal government for erecting dams and supplying cheap, subsidized irrigation water and electricity. The "managed oasis life" came at great cost to the wild salmon of the river and to the Native Americans who based their culture on the Chinook and other species that were all but eradicated by the behemoth dams along the Columbia-Snake river system. Harden's informants on the dry, eastern side of Washington's Cascade Range invariably castigate environmentalists and city dwellers on the western side for their support of reservoir "drawdowns," which would help speed migrating salmon to the ocean but bring seasonal halts to navigation and lowered electrical generation. Harden talks to former engineers who worked at Hanford building the atomic bomb, now consultants in a massive, costly clean-up effort at the plant, who minimize the consequences to the land and its residents who lived downwind. While respectful of the hardworking farmers he interviews, Harden lacks sympathy with their complaints against impending government policies that would alter their subsidized lifestyle. He labels their faith in the Columbia River Project "irrigation theology": "The orthodoxy of the Project teaches that subsidies are freedom, salmon are frivolous, Indians are suspect, and rivers are fuel for sprinklers." Until the ascendancy of the Republican Congress, the river seemed about to benefit from Clinton administration policies that would once more permit an annual salmon migration.
Although much of the story has already been written elsewhere, Harden's bold and well-supported commentary is a welcome addition to the literature of this majestic river.
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Read an Excerpt
There is something . . . thrilling about a river. . . . Wallace Stegner Beyond the Hundredth Meridian
We sailed west from Idaho at sunset on water the color of dark chocolate. The sun disappeared slowly into the downstream distance, notching itself between puffy, bald hills and burning out in a long tomato-red smear. The river smelled of the farms it irrigates and erodes, a swampy perfume of mud and fertilizer, algae and a hint of dead fish.
Down in the galley, groggy from afternoon naps, a fat tugboat skipper and a muscular deckhand were playing a quick hand of black-jack, yawning, smoking, drinking coffee, scratching themselves in manly places, and preparing for a six-hour shift of squiring twelve thousand tons of peas, lentils, wheat, computer games, wood chips, and polyurethane-coated milk cartons out of the hinterlands of the West and off to the consuming capitalists of the Pacific Rim.
On the splendid September evening that we lumbered out into the middle of the Snake River, the principal tributary of the Columbia, the tugboat Outlaw pushed six barges. The tow, as the row of ungainly barges is called, was longer than two football fields and weighed more than a medium-sized office building. Unable to stop in anything less than a quarter mile of still water, too long and too heavy for any other American river, it was a captive of the engineered rivers upon which it plodded.
So, too, were the two men I introduced myself to down in the galley, the fat skipper and the muscular deckhand, the ones playing blackjack and scratching themselves. Without federal dams and locks onthe Snake and Columbia, they had nowhere to go on their boat. Without slackwater, they did not have a job, a marketable skill, or a future.
They were, therefore, suspicious of all those they took to be agents for, promoters of, or sympathizers with free-flowing rivers. Their long list of enemies, as I was to learn, included environmentalists, Indians, fish biologists, windsurfers, federal judges, federal bureaucrats, salmon fishermen, and suburbanites from Portland and Seattle.
As quickly as I reasonably could I assured them that they need not worry about me. I explained that I was like them. I was a beneficiary of dammed-up rivers, Arno Harden's boy, clearly no fancy-pants, fish-loving yuppie. It was true what I said, as true as anything that journalists say to ingratiate themselves, making friendships of convenience to wheedle out information. In any case, I repeated this autobiographical wheeze to every pilot and deckhand I met sailing west on the Snake and Columbia, and it worked like a passkey.
The men on the river welcomed me with genuine warmth. They fed me food my father likes to eat, boiled potatoes and beef and ice cream and sugar cookies. They told me about their failed marriages and showed me pictures of their kids. They told me about giving up half their lives to the river, never leaving their tugboats for fifteen days at a stretch, working six hours on and six hours off and always being tired, and going home to lonely wives and confused kids and sleeping fitfully in their own quiet beds, missing the bawl of diesel engines and the jostle of the river. They told me about how the Snake and Columbia sometimes freeze m the coldest winters and how the barges crunch through the ice making a hellish noise like an endless rear-end collision. They told me about the bald eagles that lance down on the river in winter to slaughter ducks whose legs are encased in ice. After eagles attack, they said, the cream-colored ice is stained with feathers and excrement and blood.
Wherever the conversation wandered during my days on the river, it always found its way back to fear and resentment. Deckhands and pilots were terrified of losing their livelihoods to a new scheme that would retool the river in favor of fish.
The lower Snake and mid-Columbia, because of federal dams, have been slowed to a lake-like 1 mile per hour. The more than one hundred whitewater rapids that used to tormentand, on occasion, violently terminate river transport from Idaho to the sea have been drowned. Dredges have gouged out shipping channels-in both rivers to a depth of at least fourteen feet, five feet deeper than the Mississippi. The difference allows the Columbia-Snake System to float barges that are twice as heavy as those that ply the Mississippi. A bushel of wheat-travels more efficiently and more cheaply on the Columbia-Snake System than on any river, highway, or railroad in the nation.
One-quarter of America's feed grain and 35 percent of its wheat move down these rivers, which have been fully modified for freight only since the mid-1970s and which still have plenty of capacity for expansion. If you are a wheat grower or maker of computer games or manufacturer of polyurethane-coated milk cartons and you live anywhere near the Rocky Mountain West, federally financed river modification means that there are transport dollars to be saved by forsaking trucks and trains and even the Mississippi and seeding your wares to sea in Idaho.
What saves money, alas, kills salmon. Mostly it kills them when they are young and trying to go to sea. An estimated nine of ten juvenile salmon that attempt to swim to the Pacific from Idaho do not make it. The percentage of migrating juvenile salmon that succeed in returning to Idaho as adults ranges from a high of 1.2 percent for steelhead to less than 0.01 percent for spring and summer chinook. In 1992, just one adult Snake River sockeye survived the nine-hundred-mile trek back up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to spawn in Redfish Lake in central Idaho. Me was named Lonesome Larry, and then-Idaho-governor Cecil Andrus, a devoted fisherman, had him stuffed, mounted, and displayed for visitors as a symbol of how "eight lumps of concrete" have ruined his state's heritage.
Lonesome's frozen sperm, along with the fresh sperm of a handful of other adult sockeye males who survived the river gauntlet, stands between the sockeyes and extinction. The sperm has been used to fertilize about ten thousand eggs from sockeye females who also made it back to Redfish Lake in the early 1990s. (For all his fame, it fumed out that Lonesome's sperm, after thawing out, had "low motility." It probably contributed nothing to the future of his species.)
The breeding project is a small part of a last-gasp scheme to save Idaho's wild salmon. The part of the salmon-saving scheme that infuriates barge pilots and deckhands is called the "drawdown."
Before there were dams on the Snake and Columbia, the stream-flow time from Lewiston, Idaho (where I boarded the barge), to the sea-was about two days. With the dams, it is about two weeks. The drawdown would unplug reservoirsfor a few months-each year during the spring and summer salmon migrationsand turn the lower Snake and part of the Columbia hack into something that is less like a lake and more like a river. Rather than feed the rivers through hydroelectric turbines, the drawdown would spill water over darns. In theory, this would whisk vulnerable young salmon to the sea, while protecting them from turbines, predator fish, and the lethal effects of slow-moving, warmish water.
Speeding up the rivers would lower water levels and halt all barge traffic on the Snake for most of every summer, the peak shipping season. It would leave many irrigation systems on the Snake and mid-Columbia high and dry, requiring costly modification. It would cost Northwest utilities tens of millions of dollars to buy electricity it to the drawdown. Finally, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates it could cost U.S. taxpayers as much as five billion dollars to modify four Snake River dams.
Environmental groups and many fish biologists argue that the drawdown is the only chance to save Snake River sockeye and chinook salmon. The drawdown could be reedy to go before the end of the centuryassuming that irrigators, utility companies, Idaho part authorities, grain buyers, and barge companies do not succeed in bullying regional lawmakers to kill it.
In trying to stop the drawdown, river users insist that they do care deeply about salmon. "Salmon are why we live in the Northwest. They are an environmental bellwether of our quality of life," Jonathan Schleuter, executive vice-president of the Portland-based Pacific Northwest Grain and Feed Association, told me. He and other champions of the engineered river claim they object to the drawdown only because there is no conclusive scientific evidence proving that it will really help fish. They say more basic research is needed.
In response, environmental groups claim a sinister strategy of delay. The Sierra Club claims the Army Corp of Engineers, which built the Snake River dams and is running the drawdown, will go on testing until all the endangered salmon are dead.
Out on the river, away from bureaucratic sniping and sham salmon sympathy and polished environmental rage, I found a clarifying absence of cant. The men on the barge did not pretend to care about endangered species. They did not believe anyone really did. Sealed off in a bizarrely big boat for fifteen days at a stretch, missing too much sleep and eating too much ice cream, they saw salmon for what they werethe enemy.
"Nobody wants to give up anything. I don't want to give up my job. The farmers don't want to give up their water. Consumers don't want to give up cheap electricity. I ain't never seen a dinosaur, but I don't miss them. Who says it is not evolution killing these salmon? Who cares anyway?"
Greg Majeski, the muscular deckhand, explained his neo-Darwinian theory of endangered species while handing me a life jacket and leading me on a two-hundred-yard hike to the bow of the tow. It was just after sundown and Majeski, at the beginning of his evening shift, had to get out there to hook up a flashing lantern-style warning light. The thirty-four-year-old deckhand, wearing a coiled orange electric extension cord across his chest like a bandolier, grabbed the warning light and told me to follow him.
"Don't fall in the river," he instructed.
The journey out to the bow was as much an ascent as a walk. Barges in the tow rode at different levels in the river, depending on what they were carrying. The heaviest barge, with 3,000 tons of wheat, sat about four feet deeper in the river than the one in front of it, which had 1,900 tons of peas, lentils, and computer games. Majeski hopped, climbed, and shimmied between the barges with the bored nonchalance of a commuter changing trains. Trying to keep up, I slipped, bruised my knee, and sheepishly asked for a hand, all the time fretting about the Snake as it sluiced beneath us in the seams between the barges.
Most deckhands slip and fall in the river several times during their career. It usually happens when their tow is near the riverbank, picking up loaded barges or dropping off empties. Majeski fell in last spring in the middle of the Columbia. It was at night during a 50mile-an-hour windstorm. His radio went dead as soon as he hit the water. His flashlight continued to work and he tried to shine it, while bobbing in seven-foot waves, into the eyes of the tow's skipper, who sat in the wheelhouse forty-two feet above the water and about two hundred yards from the point where Majeski fell in. His skipper never saw the flashlight, but he was bothered by the oddly silent radio. The skipper managed to find his floundering deckhand by scouring the river with a wheelhouse spotlight. He turned the tow so Majeski could pull himself back on board. The deckhand changed his clothes and returned to work.
After fourteen years on the river, Majeski's job, which pays him about forty-five thousand dollars a year with overtime, has given him the body of a linebackerhulking shoulders, tree-trunk arms, tight waist, powerful legs. Out on the barges, his primary responsibility is to tie, untie, and tighten the cables that hold the tow together. The cable is an inch and a half thick and a foot of it weighs fourteen pounds. Dragging forty feet of cable across a barge means wrestling with five hundred and sixty pounds of not-very-flexible steel. Deckhands, as they age, suffer from chronic tendinitis, bad backs, torn shoulder ligaments, and aching wrists. High winds on the river can snap a cable like a rubber band. A flying cable will shatter or sever human limbs. A few months before my trip a cable shredded as it snapped, shooting a sliver of steel into a deckhand's thigh. There is also the risk of getting a foot, leg, or arm caught between barges, a squeeze that can turn appendages to mush.
Out on the bow, the evening was fine and warm, with little wind. We escaped the incessant wail and vibration of the tug's diesel engines. The bow of the tow plashed, with a soothing sibilance, through a darkening, glass-smooth river. The Snake, as it enters Washington State and heads west toward its confluence with the Columbia, flows through a steep, arid, and oddly empty canyon. Its steep walls have no trees and very little vegetation. They seem, from a distance, to be covered in elephant hide dirty gray, cracked, and gullied by long-ago rain. There are irrigated wheat fields and vineyards and small farm towns up over the canyon lips. But none of this can be seen from the river. I could see no electric lights as the last traces of the canyon disappeared in the black of a moonless evening. From the bow of the tow, night passage on the Snake was serenely disorienting. The darkness was unearthly, like sailing in a cave.
Majeski broke the spell by plugging in the flashing warning light and telling me that he had had to divorce his wife, a woman in her twenties. He said she had been seeing a number of other men while he was out on the river. "She wasn't fit to be left alone without adult supervision for fifteen minutes, let alone fifteen days," he said.
After just two hours, Majeski said goodbye to me. He fetched my suitcase and returned to the tugboat Outlaw. He untied the cables that hitched the tug to the roped-together barges, and I was cut loose with twelve thousand tons of export merchandise to float alone in an inky canyon of slackwater.
Drifting blind in slackwater. That is not a half-bad description of what it was like to grow up in the Columbia Basin in the age of dams. Slackwater was the amniotic fluid of my hometown. Pumped into irrigation ditches and funneled south through a network of canals longer than the Potomac River, it changed everything.
When water arrived in Moses Lake in the early 1950s, the encircling scrub desert of sagebrush, cheatgrass, and greasewood gave way to fields of sugar beets, alfalfa, and wheat. Hot summers moderated, and dust storms eased. With sprinklers knocking down the dust, you could see a hundred miles west on summer evenings and catch the jagged profile of the Cascade Mountains etched in black against the burnt red sky.
Those mountains, which run north and south from British Columbia to Oregon, form a fundamental dividing line in the Pacific Northwest. By scraping rain from the sky as weather blows in off the Pacific, the Cascades cleave the region between wet and dry, forest and sagebrush, urban and rural, crowded and empty. Those who live on the West Side of the mountainsthe side with the ocean, the rain forest, Puget Sound, and most of the peopleenjoy a freedom nearly unique in the West. Freedom not to panic about water. The East Side, the side with the desert, the dams, the irrigation ditches, and Hanford, is like every other part of the West. Too dry for comfort, always jealous of the living it wrests from the river.
Before slackwater, Moses Lake was a far-west replica of the sorry homestead country that two generations of Hardens had gone broke on back in eastern Montana. The town was notable for its large jackrabbits, plentiful rattlesnakes, and frequent sand storms. A Chamber of Commerce history tried to dress up Moses Lake's early years, but it admitted that before federal money gave us slackwater there was a certain pointlessness to the Moses Lake experience. "Out of the desert a city was built," the history said. "Some of the earliest homesteaders and settlers of the area . . . would ask, `Why?'"
Human habitation before the turn of the century had been limited to a band of Columbia River Indians who occasionally stopped by the lake to water their horses and dig for wild onions, sweet white camas, and other roots that grew in the mudflats around the shallow lake. .When white people began trickling into the area in the 1870s, the Indians were led by a chief called Sulktalthscosum. Presbyterian missionaries renamed him Moses, a christening for which poor spellers in my hometown have always been grateful. Chief Moses was a leader who would do almost anything to avoid fighting with whites. That, however, did not stop the U.S. Army from packing him and his five hundred followers off to a reservation.
Land around the lake that came to be named after the renamed chief was not extensively settled by whites until 1910, when farmers were lured to the area by a few years of above-average rainfall. It was a chronic miscalculation of the arid West. Ill-informed settlers figured that if it rains for a couple of years, it will rain forever. When the rains returned to normalabout eight inches a year, less than a fifth of what falls on the East Coast, less than a tenth of what falls over on the west side of Washington Statemost settlers gave up and moved on.
The New Deal broke the cycle, building Grand Coulee and giving us water. The pork-barrel labors of Washington State's two long-serving United States senators, Henry M. Jackson and Warren G. Magnuson, flooded our desert not only with irrigation water, but with dollars. It amounted to 10 percent of the nation's entire public-works budget, and it was spread over a region with 0.4 percent of the nation's population.
With a seemingly inexhaustible supply of water and federal money, Moses Lake won itself a future and a factory. A sugar-beet plant was built on the east side of town. Every Easter, we children were invited by the U&I Sugar Company out to the beet fields surrounding the factory to hunt for coded eggs that could be traded for candy. Irrigation also made life sweet for those who hunted with shotguns.
The state fish and game department imported Chinese pheasants and set them loose in the irrigated fields, where they thrived beyond all expectation. For a time, the big, noisy, succulent-eating game birds were almost as common as sparrows. I flushed them from vacant lots on my way home from school. My older brother, handy with a shotgun, shot several a week during hunting season. For a time, my mother cooked more pheasants than chickens.
The state fish and game department also planted large numbers of trout, bass, crappies, and perch in Moses Lake, a body of water that itself was perked up every spring by an infusion of water from the Columbia. For a time, the planted fish, like the planted pheasants, thrived in the lake and in the Potholes Reservoir south of town. Tens of thousands of city people from the rainy West Side flocked over to the well-watered desert to shoot our pheasants, catch our fish, and spend their money.
My earliest memories in Moses Lake are of weekend afternoons in the summer, when my mother and father took the family to irrigation canals to swim. It was before we had air conditioning. By mid-July, with the temperature often near a hundred degrees, the lake turned fetid, as farm runoff rich with chemical fertilizers inspired a malodorous bloom of turd-like clumps of algae. Canals were the one clean place to cool off. Adding to their allure, the canals were posted by the federal government and surrounded by cyclone fence. Signs said the water was deadly and the Bureau of Reclamation would not accept responsibility if you drowned. My little sister, Debbie, and I wore life jackets, at my mother's insistence. We also wore sneakers so as not to cut our feet on sharp rocks and broken beer bottles. Holding our noses and closing our eyes, we jumped into the canals from low wooden bridges, and the boiling current whipped us twenty or thirty feet downstream before we dared breathe or open our eyes. The water was pristine and, no matter how many times we jumped in, astoundingly cold.
I did not know then, of course, that it came from the Columbia River or that the multibillion-dollar system that delivered it was built by the federal government. I assumed that cold-water ditches in the desert were part of the natural order, one of God's gifts to the chosen people of the Columbia Basin.
My solitary drift in the Snake with twelve thousand tons of cargo lasted only about three minutes, the time it took for the tugboat Outlaw to untie itself from the barges and back away, and for the tugboat Defiance to move into position and tie up. The Tidewater Barge Lines of Vancouver, Washington, my host for the river journey, controls 80 percent of the shipping on the Columbia-Snake System and operates sixteen tugboats. They routinely switch barges in midstream.
A new deckhand appeared, grabbed my suitcase, and led me to my cabin on the Defiance. Then he ushered me up two flights of stairs to the wheelhouse. It was movie-house dark but for the glow of a color radar monitor that tracked the tow's position in the river. All four sides of the wheelhouse had large windows, affording the skipper a panoramic view of the encircling blackness. In the glow of the monitor, I could just make out the back of the skipper's crew-cut head.
"By the time you get to Portland, you are going to be bored shitless."
In this way, without getting up, Steve McDowell introduced himself. He told me to sit down, asked if I was hungry, spat a plug of chewing tobacco into a paper towel, tossed it neatly into a plastic trash can, and launched into a dyspeptic disquisition about life on the river.
McDowell had begun barging at the age of twenty-three, after going bankrupt in the coin-operated Laundromat business in his hometown of Vancouver, Washington. He worked as a deckhand for ten years before winning promotion, fourteen years ago, to river pilot. At age forty-seven, he still had the shoulders and arms of a man who can wrestle steel cable. But his stomach was headed south at a gallop, straining at his T-shirt. He pointed pridefully at the bulge.
"They call it Tidewater belly, wheelhouse gut. You see a lot of fat people out on these boats. The only entertainment we got is food," McDowell said. He had tried jogging and even bought a rowing machine, bringing it on board the Defiance. "I gave up the jogging a few years ago. So far, I look at the rowing machine and it looks at me and nothing happens."
The crew on a Tidewater tow consists of just four men, two pairs of pilots and deckhands. One pair sleeps while the other works. As senior pilot on the Defiance, McDowell was also the tug's skipper. Tugboat pilots and skippers steer, eat, and sleep. That is pretty much it, except for their twice-daily climb from their bunks up two flights of narrow stairs to the wheelhouse. Once there, they mostly sit in a large reclinable black leather captain's chair. Deckhands cook their food, clean their toilets, do their laundry, repair their engines, and bring them coffee and cookies.
The tow was a time capsule from Grover Cleveland's America. Fat, out on the river, meant prestige, prosperity, and power. When deckhands win promotion to pilot (who can make as much as sixty thousand dollars a year with overtime), they separate themselves from their subordinates and their muscle-bound, back-breaking past by dressing up in a wheelhouse gut. When an experienced pilot hires on with Tidewater Barge Lines from another outfit, his lack of seniority can force him to work as a deckhand and suffer the indignity of shedding weight. Dave Faulkner, the deckhand working on McDowell's shift, the one who picked up my suitcase, was losing status as we sailed west. Faulkner, for ten years a tug pilot on the Bering Sea in Alaska, had shrunk from a thirty-six- to a thirty-two-inch waist in eight months on the Defiance.
Waistlines are not the only part of a pilot's life that can come undone on the river. Divorce is a chronic problem for them, as for deckhands. Crew members, having little else to talk about during their fifteen days, confinement on the river, gossip so much and so often about each other's marital problems that they call their discussions "As the Barge Turns." Everyone seems to know intimate details of everyone else's sex life. I mentioned to McDowell what Majeski had told me about his young wife. He nodded knowledgeably. For him it was old news.
"Barging does put a strain on marriages. It is especially hard on these young guys who haven't developed their relationships yet," said the skipper, once divorced since coming to work on the river. McDowell said he has managed to keep his second marriage together, in part because he and his current wife own a house overlooking the Columbia. He cruises past the house in the Defiance a couple of times a week, waves to his wife, and chats with her on a VHF-band radio. He says it keeps them both from feeling isolated and resentful. Cellular phones, of course, could do the same service, for pilots and deckhands alike. But most of them seem to prefer two weeks of spousal silence.
McDowell said it takes the better part of a decade of getting fat and fighting loneliness in the wheelhouse before a pilot can master the Snake and Columbia. Mastery means memorizing the position of the shipping channel in 350 miles of river between Lewiston and Portland, along with the best approach to every turn, sandbar, rocky shallow, narrow bridge, and tricky lock along the way. Most important, mastery means learning how not to panic in the wind.
The Columbia is probably the most consistently windy navigable river in North America. Winds of more than 50 miles an hour blow several times a month in the river gorge that cuts west through the Cascades. The gorge, the only major breach in the mountains, is an equalizing chamber through which the radically different climates of the East Side and West Side of the Pacific Northwest are always trying to iron out their differences.
The wind blows hardest upriver, from west to east, when storms slam inland off the Pacific. But even when the coastal weather is relatively calm, temperature and barometric differences between the wet and dry sides of the mountains create a vacuum that draws moist thermal winds up the gorge.
The wind on the river abruptly reverses direction, turning tail and heading west, when a large mass of cool marine air builds up across the West Side and begins spilling over the peaks of the Cascades. That moist air, once it clears the mountains, races downhill like a flash flood after a big rain. The "drainage wind" follows creeks, streams, and minor rivers on the East Side until it gathers together on the surface of the Columbia itself, turns west with the river, and pushes through the gorge toward the sea. It is not uncommon for winds of more than 40 miles an hour to blow upriver all day and then reverse in the evening to blow with equal, or even greater, velocity downriver.
"Whenever you have a wreck, it is 95 percent of the time the wind," McDowell said. "Imagine holding up a piece of plywood in a 45-mile-an-hour wind. That is what it is like steering a barge on the river. Unloaded barges have to be tacked into the wind, like a sailboat. If you steer these boats for any time, you are going to hi something."
McDowell said a 60-mile-an-hour wind on the Columbia ripped his tow apart three years ago, snapping six steel cables and blowing away one of his barges. "Luckily I was near another Tidewater tug. I left what remained of my tow with him, and went downriver chasing the barge that got away." On the day before he picked me up, McDowell said he was pushing a tow of empty barges up the Columbia into a gusting 50-mile-an-hour headwind that snapped a cable and sent spray more than two hundred yards in the air. Lofted up by the bow of his tow, the spray whipped in the wind until it splattered against the wheelhouse windows of his tug.
"Used to be we didn't tie up over nothing. Now if you are running upriver with oil in the wind, and you pass up a place to tie up, and you spill some oil, you'll never work in the industry again," McDowell said. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 in the Gulf of Alaska changed the willingness of skippers like McDowell to challenge the wind. Since the spill, he and other Tidewater skippers have had to attend courses on hazardous-material cleanup. Tidewater Barge Lines has stationed emergency cleanup rigs at intervals along the Snake and Columbia.
Worse than the wind, in McDowell's view, are the wet-suited "clowns" who play in it. The Columbia Gorge was discovered in the 1980s as the best windsurfing site in the continental United States. By the mid-1990s, windsurf tourism had become the dominant industry in Hood River, Oregon, and a number of other former timber towns in the gorge. "Board-heads" from around the world put in about three hundred thousand windsurfing days a year along a forty-mile stretch of the Columbia. The most adventurous of the windsurfers come out on the river in the severe winds that snap barge cables.
"They are going to send me to an early grave," McDowell said. "When it first started, I thought it was just a passing fad. I never believed it would develop into the nightmare that it is now. It has added a lot of stress to this job. When you go through the gorge, there are so damn many of them that you can't pay attention to them all. There are always one or two thrill-seekers who have to have that one last pass in front of you. When they do, you just hold your breath. They disappear in front of the bow and you just pray they come out."
McDowell's house on the Columbia is in the gorge, not far from Hood River and its windsurfing boutiques. "I just hate to go there during the windsurfing season. All these trust-fund babies come in and money is no object to them. I've seen more people in spiky hair and rubber clown outfits than I ever thought I'd see in my life. I went into what used to be my favorite bar, and one of these weirdos asked me to sign a petition. It called for an immediate ban on barging in the Columbia."
As hours passed and we chugged downriver on the black windless Snake, whose rocky shallows McDowell had long since committed to memory, the skipper leaned back in his big leather wheelhouse chair, filled his mouth with chewing tobacco, and directed my attention to the real aggravation of working on the river. Obesity, marital discord, windstorms, oil spills, and even windsurf weirdos were nothing as compared to the torment of endangered salmon.
McDowell pointed to the radar screen and asked sarcastically if I could spot "the last sockeye" floating dead in the Snake.
Before I could think of a clever answer, he launched into an angry (and historically questionable) lecture. He said that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game decided in the 1960s to kill off all the sockeye by poisoning the central Idaho lakes where they spawn. He added that when dams on the Snake River were built in the sixties and seventies, no state or federal fish agencies attempted to protect the fish.
"Now they want this drawdown. They want to destroy our industry to save this fish that they used to kill," McDowell said. "How important are these salmon? How important are we? To change everything around for a few lousy fish don't seem like it is real smart."(*)
When I bailed out of eastern Washington in 1974 for graduate school on the East Coast, users of the engineered river had not yet begun to whine. All was well in the slackwater empire. Failure in Vietnam (where my brother, James Arno Harden, was killed in a helicopter crash) and the squalor of Watergate may have rattled the nation's faith in itself But in eastern Washington we still believed in the purifying power of "total use for greater wealth." Progress was still conquest over nature, and the highest form of conquest was still pouring concrete into the Columbia. The chairman of the committee on ecology in the Washington State legislature, a man born and raised in the Columbia Basin, announced in 1974 that "we must not tie up needed developments with needless red tape."
Grand Coulee Dam was tripling its electricity output with the addition of six new turbines, each of which was capable of ingesting the equivalent of a Colorado River. A landmark treaty was signed with Canada that, in effect, turned the Columbia inside out. Before the treaty, the river spent most of its power in the summer. The dry-season flow patternan oddity among big North American riverswas caused by the peculiarities of the upper Columbia Basin, which drains mountain snowpack and ice fields. The summer melt had, for more than ten thousand years, made the river a reliable salmon highway from April to September. But international law and three new dams north of the border conspired to hoard much of the Columbia in reservoirs until winter, when consumers most wanted its electricity.
Farther south, the Snake River was being outfitted with its own network of dams, locks, and reservoirs so it could give a seaport to Idaho, a state that lies mostly in the mountain time zone.
Hanford was busier then ever churning out plutonium for the cold war. A Hanford scientist confidently told a local congressman that the secret federal reservation would one day open up to the business community as the world's first "nuclear power park." It would attract, he said, a lucrative cluster of breeder reactors to produce both weapons-grade fuel and electricity. It would also attract companies that reprocessed spent reactor fuel and stored toxic waste. The congressman thought it was a fine idea and so did the newspaper that reported it.
In the Columbia River itself, wild salmon were already in dangerous decline. But fishermen did not blame the instruments of greater wealth: dams, locks, irrigation diversions, clear-cut logging around salmon habitat, or the wholesale transformation of the Columbia into a stair-step lake. They blamed Indians.
A federal judge set off the closest thing to civil war that the Pacific Northwest has known when he ordered in 1974 that, based on treaty rights and historical practice, Indians had a right to "half the catch." Whites in Washington State shot Indians and cut their nets; state and local police raided and tear-gassed an Indian fishing camp. Fishermen and police refused for years to obey the judge's order. The judge was burned in effigy, accused of having an Indian lover, and threatened with death.
Farmers around my hometown, with wheat prices at record highs, were pressing to expand their acreage and pad their profits. They were furious when state and federal water officials tried to enforce regulations limiting the use of unlicensed wells for irrigation. Moses Lake farmers derided worries that groundwater might run out, arguing that they would never accept federal infringement on their property rights. "We don't have to tolerate people in the government who use their position to strip people of their very means of making a living," one irrigator said. He added that the feds could control the water under his farm only if they paid him rent for keeping it there.
Odd as it may seem growing up in a place that owed its very existence to federal money, I cannot recall anyone ever saying anything good about the government. In our house, my father explained that the federal government was run by "a bunch of thieves. They ought to take those bastards outside and shoot them." This was not just my father's opinion, it was a sacred incantation in irrigation country.
We were federal-dependent and federal-hating (except for the sainted memory of the great rainmaker FDR, and our appreciation of the pork-barrel artistry of Magnuson and Jackson) and we never gave it a second thought. As I think back on those years, there was an even higher level of paradoxand delusion. However much we resented the federal government, we never seriously challenged what it was doing, to the Columbia River, at Hanford, or anywhere. Although we never talked about it, never heard about it at school, and never acknowledged it even to ourselves, the price we paid to prosper in the engineered West was powerlessness.
Faceless experts from the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Department of Energy did what they wanted and kept as many secrets as they wished. They operated without local challenge or local understanding. All they had to do, in return, was give us regular work.
The way we lived, the way working people lived across the engineered West, has been described as the "managed oasis life." In Rivers of Empire, historian Donald Worster writes that "their conformity, their lack of self-confidence, and their thirst outweigh any resentment they may feel toward those in power. . . . The masses will, in gratitude, agree to make no trouble. . . . The rewards of acquiescence are so high."
We acquiesced to a power elite of a kind that ruled everywhere in the engineered West. Its structure was so consistent and so ubiquitous that western historians call it the "Iron Triangle." It was a club with a membership limited to growers (and other major users of power and water), federal bureaucrats, and senior politicians.
In the Columbia Basin, the Iron Triangle worked like this: Technocrats from the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers spent large amounts of federal money to build and maintain dams, locks, and irrigation canals that subsidized a network of moneyed interests. Those interests included utilities, aluminum manufacturers, shipping companies, food processors, and irrigators. Grateful growers and industry executives contributed generously to the campaigns of Jackson, Magnuson, Representative Tom Foley, and other politicians, who in turn appropriated money to make sure that technocrats continued to deliver cheap power and cheap water to the tight circle of well-heeled contributors.
One wrinkle in the Iron Triangle peculiar to the Columbia Basin was Hanford, the plutonium plantation on the banks of the Columbia. Unlike the dams and the irrigation schemes, Hanford was not sold to the public as a scheme to benefit the West. It was a bulwark against communism, too important to national security to be understood, doubted, or even discussed. It employed many thousands of people and paid them extremely well. If we talked about Hanford at all, we said we were lucky to have it.
Two decades is a long time in the West. When I came home in 1993 to follow the river, the managed oasis life was going to hell. The cappuccino cognoscenti on the West Side of the Cascades were making jokes about the depression-era mentality that had served my family so well, the mentality that defined dependence as self-reliance, passivity as patriotism, and not-knowing as wisdom.
"The East Side is populated by a generation of people who believe there is a free lunch. Why are we subsidizing them and their myths about individualism? I tell these intolerant people that you are welcome to play cowboy, but you don't get to do it on the government dime.
"These people in rural areas have hung out for forty years in the Eisenhower administration and now they are going to have to pay. In the end, it won't make any difference what they do. Time and demographics are on the side of environmentalists; if not the environment. Most people who believed the world is flat didn't change their minds. They died."
So said Andy Kerr, an environmental activist in Portland who was often quoted in the West Side newspapers as an oracle of the New West. Thrilled by the sound of his own voice, Kerr told me that westerners had to wake up to the fact that they had outgrown cowboy stories. The West was the most urban region of the United States, with 70 percent of the population west of the Continental Divide living within fifty miles of Interstate 5, a freeway that runs up the Pacific Coast from southern California to northern Washington.
History was being rewritten not by resource-sucking East Side whiners, Kerr said, but by winners, people like himself and other West Side suburbanites with money and education and subscriptions to Audubon magazine.
The growing behemoths of Northwest capitalism, Microsoft and Boeing, Nike and Nintendo, Starbucks Coffee and Eddie Bauer, did not make money by strip mining or clear-cutting forests or damming rivers. Their economy was made of high technology, manufacturing, and aggressive international marketing. Washington State led the nation in per capita income from foreign trade. The West Side was an archetype of what Bill Clinton, in his 1992 presidential campaign, said the entire country should become, "a high-growth, highwage, smart-work society." Managers in Seattle and Portland had a bottom-line stake in recruiting the best young minds in the country and keeping them happy in the Northwest. Environmentalism, for them, combined good public relations with sound employment policy.
On the dry side of the mountains, many New Deal dreams had gone sour. The slackwater scheme that brought economic viability to my hometown was said to have cost more than it was worth. The local head of the Bureau of Reclamation told irrigators shortly after I came home that they had to wake up, abandon plans of getting additional water from the Columbia, and expect to pay more for less water. "It's a whole new ball game," Jim Cole, the local Bureau director, told stunned farmers.
Around my hometown, the imported Chinese pheasants had mostly disappeared, the fishing had gone bad, the sugar-beet factory had exploded and closed down. The Easter egg hunt was a fading memory.
Dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers were almost always mentioned in the papers for the salmon they killed, not the electricity they generated. Senators Jackson and Magnuson were dead, and the Iron Triangle had gone wobbly. Newly elected lawmakers, such as Senator Patty Murray, a suburban populist from Seattle who campaigned as a "mom in tennis shoes," ignored irrigation and aluminum lobbyists to focus on abortion rights, family leave, and environmental issues. She kept saying that saving salmon was worth the risk of losing jobs. Hanford had become a national disgrace. And nothing seemed to stop the decline of salmon. For the first time, a ban on all commercial and sport salmon fishing was imposed in 1994 on all rivers and coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest. The only exception was for a few Indian tribes. Control of the Columbia's hydropower networkthe largest such grid in the worldwas slipping out of the hands of the federal agencies that build dams and sell electricity and into the hands of agencies that are supposed to figure out how to save salmon.
The Columbia itself, despite its huge flow and pristine headwaters, was becoming polluted. A joint Washington-Oregon environmental report described dangerous levels of toxic chemicals in the river, mostly from pulp mills. The presence of dioxin and other industrial poisons periodically rose to worrisome levels in river trout and walleye, prompting state warnings that fishermen should not ear more than twenty fish meals a month. Biologists from the University of Washington told Congress that "watersheds and rivers of the Pacific Northwest are presently moving toward a level of biotic impoverishment that will be in large part irreversible. If we do not act now, we will stand to lose much of what makes the Pacific Northwest unique."
American Rivers, a Washington-based environmental group that monitors rivers across North America, placed the Columbia at the top of its annual list of the country's ten most-endangered rivers.
Shortly after coming home to Moses Lake, I drank coffee in a pancake house with an irrigation farmer who insisted that he was an endangered salmon. The farmer was Bernie Erickson, a big-boned wheat grower who flies his own airplane. He was worried that the Bureau of Reclamation would reverse its preliminary approval of his plans to irrigate more land with Columbia River water. The salmon metaphor swam unexpectedly to the surface as Erickson toyed with a packet of Sweet 'n Low and struggled to convince me that something was going terribly wrong in the West.
The feds forgot, he said, that "all wealth comes from the earth." He said irrigation farmers, like salmon, die without cheap water, adding that farmers also need subsidized electricity to pump the water and crop subsidies to guarantee profits for whatever they grow. He blamed environmentalists for tricking urban Americans into seeing salmon as "sacred" while viewing farmers as "greedy people who are raping the earth."
Along the Columbia, I heard countless variations on Bernie Erickson's theme of the resource-using westerner as endangered species. Utility executives and farm wives, dam operators and river dredgers complained of a conspiracy to destroy the "working river," ruin their livelihoods, and sabotage what was good and godly about life in the West. Most of these people sounded furious and seemed afraid. Everywhere they looked they saw the dark hand of the federal government and the arrogant, interfering ways of high-salaried yuppies. They believed city people were trying to turn the Columbia Riveralong with the forests, mountains, and deserts of the entire Westinto a theme park where the only jobs would be menial and minimum wage. They blamed salmon as co-conspirators.
FNT[(*) Like a number of salmon myths I heard out on the river, McDowell's story about the poisoning of all the sockeye in central Idaho exploits a nugget of fact to tell a misleading and self-serving untruth. The real story is neither as appealing nor as appalling as McDowell's version. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game did poison three high-mountain lakes in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It did so with the intent of killing trash fish, thereby allowing the lakes to be stocked with rainbow trout, a game fish that officials hoped would attract tourists to Idaho. At the time of the poisonings, state fish counts showed no sockeye population in any of the three lakes. Later investigation found that the lakes might have been spawning territory for as much as a quarter of Idaho's sockeye population. The fish and game department, however, never poisoned and never considered poisoning two lakes where fish counters had located healthy populations of sockeye. Dexter Pitman, manager of Idaho's salmon and steelhead program, said the story of the poisoning is told by river users "to justify not taking any action to protect the fish and to belittle the sanity of fish biologists."]FNT (*) Like a number of salmon myths I heard out on the river, McDowell's story about the poisoning of all the sockeye in central Idaho exploits a nugget of fact to tell a misleading and self-serving untruth. The real story is neither as appealing nor as appalling as McDowell's version. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game did poison three high-mountain lakes in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It did so with the intent of killing trash fish, thereby allowing the lakes to be stocked with rainbow trout, a game fish that officials hoped would attract tourists to Idaho. At the time of the poisonings, state fish counts showed no sockeye population in any of the three lakes. Later investigation found that the lakes might have been spawning territory for as much as a quarter of Idaho's sockeye population. The fish and game department, however, never poisoned and never considered poisoning two lakes where fish counters had located healthy populations of sockeye. Dexter Pitman, manager of Idaho's salmon and steelhead program, said the story of the poisoning is told by river users "to justify not taking any action to protect the fish and to belittle the sanity of fish biologists."
Meet the Author
Blaine Harden, an award-winning journalist, is a contributor to The Economist and a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
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