A new Grand Coulee Dam every 60 days!

October 14, 2015

Third in a Series of on the Rivers of the West

President Kennedy at Hanford's N Reactor

President Kennedy at Hanford’s N Reactor

On April 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy came to Hanford, Washington, to celebrate the dedication of the N Reactor. The ninth production reactor at Hanford and the only one of its kind in the nation, this new reactor was designed to produce plutonium for the defense industry and also to generate electricity.

President Kennedy praised the way that people along this river had changed “the entire history of the world,” especially during “the closing days of the Second World War,” a veiled reference to the bombs that had incinerated Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

While asserting that America needed to maintain its “national strength and national vigor,” he also said that “no one can speak with certainty about whether we shall be able to control this deadly weapon, whether we shall be able to maintain our life and our peaceful relations with other countries.”

When people around the world come to realize “that war is so destructive, so annihilating, so incendiary…it may be possible for us, step by step, to so adjust our relations, to so develop a rule of reason and a rule of law [that] it may be possible for us to find a more peaceful world.”

The president then shifted to the primary topic of his address, which was to describe the way that the generation of electricity by atomic power would lead to new prosperity not only for people nearby, but also for people through the entire nation: “a rising tide lifts all the boats, and as the Northwest United States rises, so does the entire country, so we are glad.”

Kennedy’s speech continued themes that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had proclaimed twenty-eight years earlier at the dedication of Boulder (later Hoover) Dam and Lake Mead and seven years later at the dedication of Grand Coulee Dam.

Roosevelt was convinced that these massive public works were unalloyed contributions to the well being of the entire nation. They constructively linked federal and local initiative, political control, and expenditure of financial resources. They transformed rivers so that they no longer ran wastefully to the ocean, but instead did useful work for the people nearby and around the nation.

President Kennedy continued these themes, displaying much the same hubris as his New Deal predecessor had manifested. Despite the fact that the actual history of western development undercut his political ideology, Kennedy spoke as though the continuation of these public works would certainly lead to a world of peace and prosperity for people everywhere.

This future was a way of life in which air conditioning and all other comforts and benefits of a comfortable life would be universally available. The achieving of these goals, Kennedy declared, would require new generating capacity—the equivalent of a new Grand Coulee dam every sixty days.

Kennedy expanded the definition of conservation. The traditional understanding was the determination to protect and not waste what nature has already given us—to “use it well, not to waste water or land, to set aside land and water, recreation, wilderness, and all the rest now so that it will be available to those who come in the future.”

The “newer part of conservation [was] to use science and technology to achieve significant breakthroughs as we are doing today, and in that way to conserve resources which 10 or 20 or 30 years ago may have been wholly unknown.” To accomplish these goals, Kennedy continued, we had to do five things. (1) We had to “use hydro resources to the fullest. “Every drop of water which goes to the ocean without being used for power or used to grow, or being made available on the widest possible basis is a waste.” (2) We had to develop techniques for developing power from coal and oil from shale, mining and harvesting resources from the bottom of the ocean, and of using energy from the sun.

(3) Low-cost atomic power had to be developed since experts were saying that by the end of the century “half of all electric energy generated in the United States will come from nuclear sources.” (4) The electric systems around the country would need to be linked. (5) We must avoid the monopolization of this capacity either by the Federal Government or large combines of private utilities.

The N Reactor generated power for twenty years and now is mothballed. Its successor, the Columbia Generating Station produces one-tenth of the electric produced within the State of Washington.

And who in their right mind can affirm the bankrupt visions that, to use the metaphor provided by Blaine Harden, have killed the Columbia as a river and given it a rebirth as plumbing? [A River Lost, p. 75]

Bicycling in America’s wet-dry world

December 20, 2013

West Without WaterThe West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow, by B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. 

I lived my earliest years in the dry land farming region of the Palouse country, south of Spokane, followed by growing up years in the marine climate west of the Cascades. After schooling in Indiana, I lived in the hot, dry South San Joaquin Valley of California and, after retirement, in the desert Southwest near Phoenix. For a decade now, I’ve been back in the Pacific Northwest on the rainy side of the mountains. The wet-dry, hot-cool alternations are basic to my way of experiencing the world.

So, too, is the geographical and hydrological importance of the three river systems that penetrate the American West: The Columbia-Snake-Willamette in the north, the Sacramento-American-Kings-San Joaquin in Central California, and the Colorado-Salt-San Pedro-Gila through the canyon lands and deserts of Arizona and southern California.

These rivers serve as the organs that connect the dry (usually hot) and wet (usually cool) elements of the western regions of the United States. They also shape the roads and highways for my cycling endeavors. At home, I’m always riding along the Columbia and its tributaries and whenever I’m back in the southwest, the dwindling streams of the Colorado determine my routes.

In general, I’ve always been aware of two features of this part of the world. The first is that despite the stability of wet and dry as the basic character of the climate, there are occasional anomalies. Sometimes, the unusual periods are the normal features played out to the extreme: far more rain than usual or longer and hotter periods than seem to be normal. At other times, however, the weather seems to reverse the climate: wet lands become dry and constant rain turns dry lands to wet.

Another factor has always been evident. We human beings interact with the meteorological and hydrological features of the natural world. We adapt to wet and dry and to hot and cold. For hundreds of years, we have been able to engineer systems that allow us to reshape how nature functions. Irrigated agriculture is one of the most persistent and important elements of the engineered life. Urban civilization is another.

What we easily overlook is that our engineering successes last only for a time before forces greater than our own overpower us and the wet-dry alternation takes control once again.

Both as citizen of the West and open-road cyclist, I devote some of my time to learning about these climatic realities. My list of books-read in this area of study keeps growing. While I am generally aware of the history of wetness-dryness in the American West, what has been lacking is the longer perspective—a fact-based, narrative history of water in the West and how it has impacted human activity in this part of the world. There are so many questions, some of them dealing with time on a vast scale.

When and why were the southwestern deserts swampy lands lush with greenery and life? How could the ancient ones develop such elaborate civilizations? What caused their rapid disappearance? How could desert people in pre-discovery times live such well-nourished and seemingly leisurely lives? How could California’s arid central valley sustain lakes and swamps as recently as 150 years ago?

Willamette RiverSome of the questions are of more immediate importance to us. Will the technologies that we have developed enable people like us to continue our current way of life in the dry places of the West? Is western climate cyclical? And if it is, how long are the cycles? How extreme are the oscillations? What changes in climate should we anticipate during the early decades of the twenty-first century? What can we do now that will help us make ready for the future?

The book that is helping me understand these factors more fully is The West Without Water by B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam. Ingram is professor of earth and planetary science and geography at the University of California (Berkeley) and Malamud-Roam is associate environmental planner and biologist at Caltrans and visiting professor with her co-author at the University of California.

The subtitle of their book offers a summary of its contents: What Past Floods, Droughts, and other Climatic Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow. The publisher’s blurb on the book jacket gives a more complete synopsis:

“The authors show that, although the Western states have temporarily buffered themselves from harsh climatic swings by building dams and reservoirs and by making other changes to the natural landscape, they may be unprepared for the effects of climate changes that are occurring now and may continue for hundreds of years into the future. The authors argue that it is time to face the realities of the past and prepare for a future in which fresh water may be less reliably available.”

There are many things to observe and reflect upon as I bicycle along the rivers of my part of the western world. The West Without Water is one of them.