Remembering the big picture: The Columbia River faces potential dam removals, an 'industrial river that's headed into the post-industrial age'

The Missoulian


From a vista high above the river at Crown Point, the Columbia River appears a picture of serenity. But, warns Michael Barber, director of the state of Washington's Water Research Center: "As you start to strain the limited amount of resource, you're going to have more impacts. There will be calls for compacts. There'll be attempts to regulate the water. These issues are going to be huge."
Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

By SHERRY DEVLIN of the Missoulian

Diverse interests force cooperation in preserving the Columbia River

PORTLAND, Ore. - The drive-time radio hosts back home taunted him. His wife threatened divorce. His sisters wondered about his sanity. The media's interest came and went, as did the corporate sponsors. He had to borrow money from his father-in-law to pay the rent.

And every time he got into the water, the river punished him. Every mile was longer and slower and stormier than he'd imagined.

But Christopher Swain still traversed the Columbia River from beginning to end by Thanksgiving. He just didn't swim the whole 1,243 miles.

"The swimming was always the secondary purpose," said Swain, the self-proclaimed "advocacy swimmer" who set out last June to navigate the Columbia from its headwaters in Canal Flats, British Columbia, to its tumultuous confluence with the Pacific Ocean.

"The whole reason I wanted to do this was to plead the river's case," Swain said from his home in Portland. "I thought that by making the river a human experience - by putting myself in the water - I would pull people's attention to the river."

Swain made it a few miles past Kettle Falls, Wash., not yet halfway on his journey, before calling it quits for the winter and heading home. The water was so cold - 45 degrees - that his face went numb and he couldn't tell when to take a breath. A day's swim yielded a scant four miles.

The guys at KUFO Radio back in Portland went crazy. "Fraud," they taunted. "Loser." His wife unloaded on him late one night. His sisters heard he was considering selling family heirlooms to finance the next leg of the swim and called their mother.

Last month, Swain took an $8-an-hour job stacking boxes in a warehouse near the Portland airport, where his co-workers call him "Columbia Chris" - the nickname given him by the radio hosts.

"You're not the only celebrity who's worked here, though," one of his fellow warehousemen said. "One of those Taliban guys they arrested in Tigard worked here, too."

Swain still insists he'll swim the rest of the way down the Columbia next spring, commuting to and from the river for a few days of swimming every now and again. If he can get someone to donate a "really, truly dry dry suit," he'll get back in the water this winter.

"The fact is I am just an average guy trying to do an outrageous thing," he said. "I only hope I have what it will take to get the job done."

Because, Swain said, he still believes that someone needs to speak up for the river. The whole, huge, 1,243-mile-long, dammed, diverted, home-to-rare-fish river.

The Columbia River collects water from seven states and one Canadian province, from a hundred mountain ranges and a thousand tributaries.

What does Yellowstone National Park have in common with Portland, Ore.? What does Missoula share with Mount Sir Donald in British Columbia? Canada's Selkirk Mountains with Oregon's Cascades?

All are drained by the Columbia River.

But across all those 259,000 square miles, there is no single entity that considers itself guardian of the Columbia.

"The big picture is pretty hard when you're protecting your own turf," said Michael Barber, director of the state of Washington's Water Research Center. "The Columbia River Basin is a very difficult puzzle to put together."

The challenge always has been - and always will be - the same, he said. "There are a lot of very diverse interests to balance on the Columbia. Nobody is going to get 100 percent of what they want."

Agricultural interests want the water for irrigation. "We have areas around Yakima that are almost a desert, and we're trying to irrigate them," Barber said. "That might not be the best long-term use of the water. I don't know if we should be irrigating places that get 3 or 4 inches of water a year. On the other hand, the population is increasing and we're going to need the food."

Cities throughout the region are expanding, which in turn increases the demand for drinking water and cheap hydro-generated electricity. But hydropower comes at the expense of migratory salmon, some runs of which have been eliminated by the Columbia basin's 400-plus dams, all runs of which were guaranteed to Northwest Indian tribes in treaties signed by the U.S. government.

On the Snake River, the dams provide the water levels needed for barges to make the voyage downstream from Lewiston, Idaho. If you want to restore salmon runs, the logical solution might be to take out the four mainstem Snake River dams, Barber said. But what if you worked at the port of Lewiston? Or shipped grain to Portland via the river?

"Dam removal just can't be taken lightly," he said. "It's a huge expense, and if it doesn't work, what then? You're out the power and you've spent millions of dollars, and everybody's going to say, 'I told you it wouldn't work.' "

And what about recreation? Upstream reservoirs in Montana want to hold on to their water come summer. As goes the lake level, so goes the tourism. Fishing guides want more cool, clean water in the tributaries, and fully restored runs of salmon and steelhead. Downstream businessmen below The Dalles Dam rely on the wide, windy river as an attraction to wind surfers.

For every problem, there is a solution; for every solution, another problem. "You can certainly make your arguments and take one side blindly," Barber said. "But at some point, we need to try and understand all of the people's objections and concerns."

"The Corps of Engineers obviously has a vested interest," he said. "They own the dams. The Bonneville Power Administration has a vested interest in selling the power the dams generate. Each of the states has its own interests, and that becomes contentious and will be more so in the future.

"As you start to strain the limited amount of resource, you're going to have more impacts. There will be calls for compacts. There'll be attempts to regulate the water. These issues are going to be huge."

"It's easy for someone who isn't associated with a particular industry to say, 'Yeah, take out all the dams,' " Barber said. "But we like inexpensive hydropower to heat our homes and run our businesses. Nobody says take out the dam and increase my electric bill by 40 percent. Nobody says take out the dams and put in a nuclear power plant."

The only way for Montana to protect its piece of the Columbia River Basin - the upper tributaries and reservoirs - is to look at the whole river system, said Ed Bartlett, one of the state's two representatives on the Northwest Power Planning Council.

"We don't think the downstream folks have intentionally ignored the impact on our reservoirs, but they have caused detrimental effects," he said. "We are trying to get those things corrected by looking at the whole basin and moving the discussion in that direction."

"Actions at one point on the system affect everything above and below that point," said John Hines, the second of Montana's representatives.

When the big hydroelectric dams on the mainstem Columbia and Snake rivers decimated what were once the world's largest salmon runs, the federal government spent billions of dollars studying salmon in hopes of finding a technological fix.

Adult salmon could not get past the concrete blockades, and so could not return to their natal streams for spawning. Young salmon could not get through the Columbia system's 900 miles of slackwater, or over the dams, when they attempted the downriver swim to the Pacific.

Some salmon were given barge rides around the dams. Some were flushed downriver by pulses of water released from upstream reservoirs in spring and summer. Some tumbled over the top of dams when operators spilled water rather than running it through the power-producing turbines.

Billions of dollars later, salmon are closer to extinction.

The problem with the salmon recovery effort, Hines said, is the way it ignored the detrimental effects on fish and people upstream. Taking water out of the reservoirs behind Hungry Horse and Libby dams killed other fish - species native to Montana, he said. And it left reservoirs without the water needed for recreation at the only season when recreation was possible.

"An extensive amount of effort has been put forward to bring back salmon runs," Hines said. "But we don't have salmon in Montana. We never had any. What we have are bull trout and sturgeon and native westslope cutthroat trout, and they're being trumped by the salmon.

"What we have is 40-45 percent of the reservoir storage for the Columbia River Basin."

So Montana and Idaho have asked the Power Planning Council to adopt a new plan for protecting and enhancing fish in the mainstem Columbia - one that takes a "headwaters-down" approach to river management.

Spring flows would be relaxed, and summertime flows would be spread evenly over 90 days - rather than fluctuating from day to day. In winter, more water would be shipped downstream for hydropower production. Less water would be spilled over dams; more water would be available for electricity making.

River operations would take "a reservoir-protection approach as opposed to a downstream-flows approach, addressing the needs of fish throughout the Columbia River system in an effort to better balance the needs of upriver resident species with the needs of downriver salmon and steelhead," according to the proposal.

Spring flows would drop by about 10 percent, virtually guaranteeing that upstream reservoirs - including Hungry Horse Reservoir and Flathead Lake - would fill by the end of June.

"We're not saying water isn't necessary for salmon," Hines said. "That would be ludicrous. We are talking about increments. Instead of 200,000 cfs in the mainstem - which is a whole bunch of water - we're suggesting 195,000 cfs. We don't think anyone can show any additional benefit for migrating salmon from another 5,000 cfs - from 2 percent of the flow."

"The impact is not measurable downstream," he said. "But it's huge upstream."

The Power Planning Council cannot rewrite river rules. Operation of the mainstem dams is governed by the National Marine Fisheries Service. But the council has considerable clout; it is the region's voice on river issues.

The topic of public hearings this week in Kalispell and Missoula, the proposed changes have angered environmentalists - who say salmon take precedence over reservoirs because of their endangered species status - and Indian tribes, who say salmon take precedence both because of the Endangered Species Act and because of treaty rights.

"These proposals are a not-so-subtle effort to grab more of the river for provincial interests," said Justin Gould, a Nez Perce Indian and chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "These proposals should never have made it this far."

Before there were dams, before there was water enough to grow crops in central Washington, before tourists fished on mountain streams, there were people who relied upon - and managed - the Columbia River.

"The tribes will tell you that they managed these fisheries for thousands of years," said Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "When the bands congregated at Celilo Falls, a council would determine how many days fishing would take place and which clans would get certain areas, and it was all done with the knowledge that people upriver also needed fish and that the fish themselves needed to get upriver to spawn."

"It worked for thousands and thousands of years," Hudson said. "It worked because native people knew what the fish needed, where the people were and where the fish were headed. Native people only took what they needed, and nothing more."

Hudson believes tribal governments are the only entities taking the entire river system into account during the ongoing, modern-day debates.

The dam builders knew that dumping millions of pounds of concrete into the Columbia would harm the river, and all life in it, Hudson said. "But there was always this notion that technological trauma could be fixed with other technology. By hatcheries. By fish passage. By barging. The tribes knew that wasn't so. They tried to stop the dams, every one of them, but no one listened."

Now the tribes want the Northwest Power Planning Council to listen. "The water that is bound up with snowpack in Montana and is held behind Libby and Hungry Horse dams is critical to salmon," Hudson said. "That water is absolutely, desperately needed by salmon in the lower river."

Hold the water in the winter, Hudson said, but let it flush through the system come spring. Let the river behave as it would have naturally, with peak flows in spring and gradually lower and lower flows over the summer.

The Columbia is at a "tipping point," said Bill Lange, a history professor at Portland State University. "It really is an industrial river that's headed into the post-industrial age. It's very unclear, if we look down the road 50 or 100 years, what on the river will remain viable."

Dams are not permanent features on the landscape, Lange said. "It would be foolish to think that somehow they are going to last for the remaining history of the river. Yet we tend to act that way."

"The Columbia is entering a period of time in its history and in the history of the communities that use it where there will be changes," he said. "It's not going to stay the same. It's just not. I think we underestimate the importance that people in the Pacific Northwest attach to the general environmental health of the river."

Ten years ago, talk of removing dams on the mainstem Snake or Columbia rivers was unthinkable, he said. Today, federal agencies are studying the possibility of removing some or all of the Snake River dams.

"I'm not so sure if you put dam removal on the ballot that voters wouldn't say, 'Take them out,' " Lange said. "Public opinion is a very unknown equation."

As is the power of tribal governments.

Every year, the tribes increase their power over the Columbia's management, Lange said. "The dominant society still has enormous prejudice against equity with Indians, and the other interests take every advantage of the Indians' lack of political and economic clout. But the tribes do have important - and in many ways untested - powers."

"It is a constantly changing dance," he said. "Anybody who makes a general statement about what is going to happen next is going to be a little bit wrong, or a lot wrong. But change is coming, that much I know. The momentum for change is like the river itself - it cannot, will not, be stopped."


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