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Early History Settlement Construction Era Aftermath Appendices

Ecological Disaster

The Columbia River will rebuild itself in time. Every natural historian has written that the futile efforts of man will be again overtaken by nature in due time. Without constant human intervention and maintenance, even the Grand Coulee Dam will be surmounted and the great horsepower of Nature will once again by unharnessed. When humanity can no longer persevere on earth, the concrete may hold but the dam will become a waterfall. Engineers have found that without upkeep, the shafts of the generators will eventually spin out of control and destroy the interiority of the dam itself (Smithsonian 1984). However, in the ideology of the technocratic age, the Grand Coulee Dam was a monument to containing the riotous river and transforming its power into progress. Today, the recent environmental awareness of this no-less technological time has awakened in the minds of many a concern for the future of the nature state.


The population of the Pacific Northwest salmon has been used as an indicator of the environmental safety of the Columbia River. It has been proved difficult to protect the integrity of an insect, mineral, or water temperature as seen in the Supreme Court case of the Snail Darter and the Tellico Dam. So, as much of the environmental literature of the Columbia Basin has focused on the state of the salmon, so will this essay. The salmon of the Pacific Northwest are divided into species of gorbuscha (pink), nerka (sockeye), keta (chum), tshawytscha (chinook), kisutch (coho), mykiss (steelhead), and clarkii (cutthroat trout). Many ichthyologists believe that five of these species were once fifty, a downsizing caused perhaps by an overall loss of natural diversity due to technological strongholds (Steelquist, 9). All seven have been classified in the salmonidae family and the oncorhynchus genus (Steelquist, 10-11). Most of these salmon are an anadromous species, that is, after having grown to the smolt stage in the riverbed, they swim to the Pacific Ocean to feed and grow to adults. Seasonal and age factors provide impetus to return to the streambed of their birth to spawn and die. However, some of these species are freshwater only. Chum, sockeye, and pink salmon are considered more evolved because of their adaptation to ocean life (Steelquist, 12-13). The chinook have often been called the King Salmon, or Royal Chinook because of their great size, thickness in seasonal runs, and frequency to ancient Native American fisheries. Salmon have a remarkable adaptability; however, the human footprint in the Pacific Northwest waterways has made the ongoing life cycle quite treacherous.

Columbia River
Downstream from Rocky Reach Dam.

First and foremost, the dams have made the passage of salmon through the rivers extremely difficult; large formations of concrete completely block the Columbia River in at least eleven places. The raging river has become a "series of slackwater lakes" (Outwater, 149). The rate of flow has decreased, harboring the salmon behind dams. The physical obstacles of the dams also slow the usual one month journey to two or three times that length. This delay means that these smolts may never make it to the ocean because "within around 15 days after spawning they may lose their downstream swimming behavior and their ability to change from a freshwater to a saltwater environment" (McCully, 42). Those fish who make it over the dam are often stunned, which increases their threat to predators or fisherman. Moreover, the foot of spillways are often supersaturated with "atmospheric gases" (McCully, 42) causing a fatal "gas-bubble disease" (McCully, 42). Without fish ladders the Grand Coulee Dam poses one of the most serious threats. The Grand Coulee Dam itself blocks "nearly 2,000 kilometres of salmon spawning grounds" (McCully, 42). That loss combined with others on the river means that "70 percent of the original spawning area" (White, 89) is lost. McCully estimates that a fishery on the upper Columbia could gross a "quarter of a million dollars a year" (McCully, 42). It was reported that each turbine depleted the runs by about 10-15 percent. Moreover, "irrigation agriculture killed salmon with its uncreened ditches and diversion dams" (White, 89-90). Rancher's livestock caused "erosion and destruction of riparian habitat" (White 90). The effects of overlogging increased erosion because the roots that once held soil in place were depleted, increased water temperature because of shade loss, and blocked streams when timber fell into rivers (White, 90). Increasingly urbanized areas used the rivers as wasteways, polluting habitat and creating hazards from industry (White, 90). Dams are built in remote areas, which after urbanization are the only havens for animals, so even refugee habitat is destroyed (McCully, 31).

Behind the Third Powerhouse at Grand Coulee, biologists experiment with fish behavior to keep them out of the intakes.

Moreover, the dam changes water quality. In the reservoirs, the surface layer is called the epilimnion and the bottom layer of deep water is called the hypolimnion. Just below the surface, the dammed water remains warmer than river water all year. The warm water at the top is too warm for young salmon to live. The deep water is cool in the summer and hot in the winter. The warm winter water inhibits the formation of ice downstream. The reservoirs trap nutrients. Algae proliferates near the surface behind the dam and through photosynthesis algae becomes a main consumer of nutrients. The byproduct of photosynthesis is an excess of oxygenated water. The algae also creates an pungent stench. The slimy substance clogs water intakes, coats gravel beds, and restricts recreation. The stagnant water often becomes unfit for household and industrial use. The oxygen-low hypoliminion is the site of decay for the algae. The lowest layer then becomes acidic, dissolving iron and manganese from the lake bed. The oxygen that is necessary for breaking down bacterial pollutants is then missing. Moreover, the deoxygenated hypoliminion itself is toxic to the salmon.

The drop
The drop from the top of Grand Coulee Dam, 350 feet to the water.

Aside from the salmon, the dams have major effects on the mere ecology of the river. Patrick McCully sites the elimination of natural flooding as the most destructive (McCully, 31). All rivers carry silt as a natural cleaning process to the sea. With the implementation of a series of dams, each reservoir stops at another dam, thus causing silt to build up behind each dam. The aggradation can only be removed with costly cleaning processes rarely undertaken. Behind the aggradation is a streambed, eroded of soil with no more to replace it. This effect removes all gravel necessary for spawning and habitat for benthic invertebrae is destroyed (McCully, 33). The long-term effects of this silt build-up are the creation of deeper and narrower channels which even further reduces the possibilities for diversity of species, habitat, and diet. The silt that would normally go to plains through this river-cleaning process does not. The silt is low in nitrogen but high in silica, aluminum, and iron, all products needed in soil. This increases the use of fertilizer in agriculture, which then is carried back into the river. Moreover, the silt also pushes to the mouth of the river to rebuild the coastline. This loss is known as oceanic erosion.

Historian Patrick McCully made another interesting point in his Silenced Rivers. The flow of the Columbia River fluctuates according to market demands for electricity and power. The generators can control the amounts of power production by regulating the flow of water. That combined with the ebbs and flows of irrigation siphons create a water level almost the opposite of what would naturally occur. Unfortunately, market demands for irrigation and electricity do not match salmon lifestyles.

Fish Ladder
Fish ladders at Rocky Reach Dam.

During the construction of the Bonneville Dam, the fisheries were a main concern. A Bureau of Fisheries outlined, "not only will the extensive canning industry of Washington and Oregon be directly affected but also every mild cured salmon packer and dealer on the Pacific Coast is concerned, every fresh salmon buyer and retailer in the country is affected, and every salmon smoker in the United States will feel the effect of the destruction of the Columbia River as a breeding ground for salmon" (Lowitt, 158). Although this statement was primarily concerned with the commercial benefits of the salmon population and not the natural right of environmental habitat, the concern was there. The Army Engineers designed "an elaborate system of traps, locks, elevators, canals, and ladders [that] shepherded adult fish over the dam and a series of by-passes brought those of their progeny, who did not go over the spillway or through the chambers of the turbines, downstream" (Lowitt, 159). The costs of this system totaled almost as much as the dam and powerhouses. Despite some fears of extinction, it seemed that many adults were able to return to their streambeds to spawn (Lowitt, 159). The system built for Bonneville's second powerplant came to cost $65 million, one-fourth the total cost (Reisner, 158).

However, in the case of Grand Coulee Dam, the grandiose size was too much to even consider such elaborate facilities. With a dam the height of a 50-story building, fish ladders would have to run for about 3 miles. The issue of Grand Coulee being a high or low dam was a complicated political issue. However, its outcome of being a high dam was perhaps also the fate of the salmon. Salmon can pass over low dams with only a few complications, as a high dam, however, Grand Coulee would be impassible (Reisner, 158). Moreover, "during the Depression, salmon was the one high-protein food most people could afford; it was still so abundant that it cost about ten cents for a one-pound can" (Reisner, 158). But Elwood Mead refused to consider fish ladders; he said it was "infeasible" (Lowitt, 159). Instead, biologists' technologies diverted the salmon to the four tributaries below the dam. Although this may have proved successful for a limited time for the salmon population, one must note that because of this the historical fishery at Kettle Falls, north of the dam on the Colville Reservation was extinguished.

Powerful Country Early Conservationists Ecological Disaster Native American Aftermath Salmon as Symbol

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