The most eloquent lines in President Roosevelt’s address at the dedication of Boulder (later renamed Hoover) Dam and Lake Mead (September 30, 1935) eulogized the transformative results of these engineering achievements. Although the President had little reason to see the reverse side of this prophetic vision, his words also expressed the hubris that in ever increasing ways marks our efforts to make nature conform to our human desires.
“We know that, as an unregulated river,” Roosevelt told his admiring audience, “the Colorado added little of value to the region this dam serves.” But with these engineering marvels in place, “an unpeopled, forbidding desert, . . . a cactus-covered waste” will be transformed. Not only will the arid southwest be enriched, but “the national benefits which will be derived from the completion of this project will make themselves felt in every one of the forty-eight states.”
Roosevelt had held this position at least as early as 1920. While campaigning for the vice presidency that year, he had seen the Columbia River and observed that it was practically unused and that all of the territories along its banks had to be “developed by the Nation and for the Nation” (quoted by Blaine Harden in A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia, p. 17).
The first step in that development was the completion of Grand Coulee Dam in 1942. The political and engineering vision of the unalloyed benefits of transformed rivers was best expressed by Woody Guthrie in one of his his three songs about the Columbia. “Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea / But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.” As historian James P. Ronda notes, the poet believed that the river had been a “wild and wasted stream” that had been tamed and made beautiful by the dams.
The idea that “the river could ramble and work at the same time,” Ronda writes, was perhaps “the most persistent illusion in river history—that the Columbia could at once be changed and yet remain the same” (Great River of the West: Essays on the Columbia River, p. 87).
This persistent illusion constitutes one false premise that undergirds the vision that Roosevelt and a host of others have engineered into reality. A second false premise is that the wild river had been wasted, useless, of little value to humankind.
Earlier in his essay, Ronda describes the impressive trading system that existed in the Celilo Falls–The Dalles region when early European explorers first arrived along the banks of the Columbia. At the peak trading times, “some three thousand Indians gathered for the rituals of bargain and exchange,” coming from the long reaches of the Columbia River system (p. 78).
Also writing in Great River of the West, William P. Lang reports that at Celilo Falls “native fishers had garnered one-third of their annual caloric needs from the Columbia for thousands of years.” During six seasonal runs they “had caught perhaps as much as 18 million pounds each year” (p. 160).
This rich economic and cultural history was dismissed as meaningless by Roosevelt’s and Guthrie’s assertions that prior to the dams the wild rivers had been wasted. No provision was made at Grand Coulee Dam for fish to pass through on their annual migration back to their spawning grounds, which meant that from then on all salmon runs beyond the dam were obliterated. All of this in the name of taming the river and making it productive for presumably the first time in its history, as if the previous economic and cultural history of the Columbia basin meant nothing.
Lang quotes Richard White, another historian who has written about the fate of the Columbia, that it has become a “virtual river.” Instead of free-flowing artery bearing life to all who venture forth upon it, the great river of the west has become “an organic machine.”
As a native son of the Northwest, who has also lived in the regions served by the Colorado, I must confess my complicity in the desecration of these waterways. I benefit from the prosperity of the western reaches of our nation. I revel in the abundance of electrical power. My constant use of electronic devices is part of the reason why vast data centers are arising along the Columbia, especially in The Dalles, thus mocking the history of this long-time center of native American trade and culture.
Beyond confessing our sins, personal and corporate, what more can we do? Cut back. Simplify. Drive less. Reform other patterns of life. Encourage the removal of dams. Resist further efforts to industrialize the Columbia and its tributaries.
We have to choose which icon will guide our decisions on how to live.
“The trade-off could not be more simply stated,” Lang writes. Dams have become “the contrary icon to salmon, the personification of a damaged environment and altered relationships with the river,” whereas salmon personify “the natural and spiritual river” (p. 161). Which will it be?
To access Paul E. Fallon’s blog on Grand Coulee Dam, click here.