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Damming the American West

by Alex Kuo, Guest Columnist
P-I Focus: Seattle Post-Intelligencer - September 14, 2003

Ah, the Columbia River! Its 259,000 square miles or 165.7 million-acre basin includes the Snake, Deschutes, Okanogan, Wenatchee, Spokane and Yakima rivers. It stretches from Idaho's Hell's Canyon to Oregon's Astoria.

It has been called "The Northwest Passage," "Great River of the West," "The Mighty Columbia." It is also home to more than 400 dams. Count them. Starting on the Columbia's main stem -- Mica, Revelstoke, Arrow, Grand Coulee, Chief Joseph, Wells, Rocky Reach, Rock Island, Wanapum, Priest Rapids, McNary, John Day, The Dalles, Bonneville.

Here in my backyard are Hells Canyon Dam, Wenaha, China Gardens, Nez Perce, Mountain Sheep, Lower Canyon, Pleasant Valley, Hells Canyon, Oxbow, Brownlee, Dworshak, White Pine, New White Pine, Three Devils, Moose Creek, Penney Cliffs, Selway Falls, Lenore, Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental, Ice Harbor. With this proliferation of concrete dams on it, the Columbia River would be more accurately called the Robo River.

Water law attorneys stake their industry's lifeline on the claim that to understand the (American) West, one has to understand water. And writer Marc Reisner has pointed out that the concept of conservation means quite different things to Americans on the two sides of the Mississippi River. To the Easterner, to conserve means to save it, to protect it from development. To the Westerner, however, to conserve means to put a dam on it -- a thick, black bar across the pale blue line on maps -- because to let it flow naturally would be a waste. For hydroelectric power, for irrigation, for transportation, for flood control, for recreation and for jobs, jobs and jobs.

Most of us know that when Brigham Young returned from the mountaintop to Utah's Immigration Canyon in 1847, his first words were, "This is the right place." But very few know that his next sentence was, "Get out the shovel." Thus began the assault on the West's waterways, culminating in the go-go years of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation of the 1930s through the 1950s. They branded and marketed Building Tomorrow Today. Not to be outdone, by hook or by crook, California anted up more than 1,200 dams during this period.

Such a modernist and capitalist view of harnessing energy from nature led the Bureau of Reclamation's John Savage to spread this American know-how globally. He invited 54 engineers and architects from Chiang Kai-shek's World War II-ravaged Chinese capital of Chungking to Denver to begin design work on what is now the dam under construction, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, Long River in Chinese. And why not?

The United States was the world leader in energy technology, with only a slight challenge from the Soviets during the 1950s and 1960s. Some have even claimed that our dams along the Columbia River won WWII and the Cold War for us. They supplied hydroelectric power for our coastal shipyards, energy-thirsty aluminum for Boeing's B-17 Army Air Force's Flying Fortresses and B-29 Super Flying Fortresses, and the Strategic Air Command's B-47s and B-52s, as well as Westinghouse & Dupont's Hanford Engineering Works in its production of plutonium. Take that, you liberal schmuck.

It's not that there hasn't been a counter-voice to this vast, engineering narrative. Even the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers had compared the Grand Coulee Dam with "a grandiose project of no more usefulness than the pyramids of Egypt." But it didn't make any difference. In the case of the Grand Coulee Dam, Floyd Dominy and the Wenatchee Daily World made sure of that with its illusionist cheers of the undaunted courage of our founding fathers (read white). No one was going to effectively alter the positive marketing of our heritage.

With the voluntary participation of much of the media, such positive boosterism completely ignored the negative impacts of these high dams and their human, economic and environmental costs. In 1948, George Gillette, chairman of the North Dakota Fort Berthold Indian Tribal Business Council, wept as he signed away 155,000 acres of his tribe's best lands to make way for the Garrison Dam.

The ensuing contract included legal stipulations that prevented Fort Berthold Indians from using any of the compensatory money for attorneys. They also excluded them from fishing in the dam's reservoir or their cattle from drinking or grazing near it. Such narratives of deceit, betrayal and conspiracy were repeated from dam to dam and largely ignored by the media, including the collapse less than a year after its completion of Idaho's Teton Dam in 1976, a disaster that destroyed the town of Rexburg.

Not even then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt made a dent in this public monument discourse when he said, to a Trout Unlimited audience in Montana in 1994, that he wanted "to be the first secretary of interior in history to tear down a really large dam" by blowing it up. Overnight, Idaho and Washington Sens. Larry Craig and Slade Gorton tore into his comments and blew him up instead. And in 1999 the Catholic bishops of the Columbia basin issued a pastoral letter pleading for us to be better caretakers of the river, that it should be viewed as the spiritual lifeblood of the region rather than an economic workhorse.

But overnight Save Our Dams bumper stickers started appearing all over the West, even on cars in the liberal Interstate 5 corridor from Mexico to Canada.

Somewhere in here I became convinced that the owners of these bumper stickers had no clue about the positive or negative social and environment impact of these dams, especially the high ones. To them, it became an issue of James Watt vs. Bruce Babbitt in what can be called an SDS phenom -- that is, Serial Deduction Substitution.

Politically they were against liberals. Liberals are people like Jane Fonda, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Jordan, Winona LaDuke, Pat Schroeder, Susan Sarandon, Wilma Mankiller. Liberals are for gun control. Liberals are advocates of pro-choice. And, aha, liberals are green, yuck, environmentalists, and they include elite fly fishermen with BMWs and Rolexes opposed to dams, the high ones anyway. So, in an SDS chain, they want to save our dams from what they deduce is a liberal, terrorist conspiracy to take their jobs and freedom from them and win the War on the West.

But they seem to forget that the War on the West was fought and clearly won by corporate America in the second half of the 19th century. Even today, look at the list of major American consultants and investors in China's Three Gorges Dam. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the American Consulting Engineers Council, Guy F. Atkinson Co., Bechtel Civil and Mineral Inc., Coopers and Lybrand, Merrill Lynch Capital Markets, Morgan Bank, Morrison-Knudsen Inc., and Stone and Webster Engineering Corp. Similar to the list of the Iraq reconstruction team, except that Halliburton seems to be missing here.

When this staggering, dam-of-all-dams goes online in 2013, a family in Seattle baking Thanksgiving turkey will avoid a brownout during a Grand Coulee power shortage because the hydroelectric supply from the Three Gorges Dam will automatically kick in. This will make everyone happy, especially the shareholders and other financial speculators in the energy market.

Except, of course, if you just happen to live in the dammed neighborhood. In that case your environment and your life and your children's children's generation will have to be sacrificed for the good of capitalism and modernization, along with the transformative stories and songs that come from the river, whether it's the Columbia or Long River. Alex Kuo E-mail:

Guest Columnist Alex Kuo whose most recent book "Lipstick and Other Stories" received the American Book Award.
Salmon Commission Funds Dry Up
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 14, 2003

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