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Columbia River Crisis: Has Technology Gone Too Far?

The Columbia River extends from Oregon to Idaho and Washington and the river also crosses the border into Canada. This river has been the site of many battles the past few years. Most of the battles center around the salmon, native fish of the river, and the dams. People want the salmon, now almost extinct, to return to the river but that is impossible. Many believe the only solution is to remove the dams and the fish will return. Technology has led us to create an environment where the fish no longer survive, but can we return the river to its natural state.

During the 1800’s settlers came west. They discovered the Columbia River Basin. To them the area looked like a vast expanse of land that could never be cultivated. The area was too dry to allow crops to grow. Even if crops grew the basin was too far from the markets of the East. The solution to the farmers’ problems lied in the majestic Columbia River.

Dams constructed on the river would tame the impassible waters. They would slow down the water, so the river could finally be navigated. Navigable water meant shipping could occur on the river. Instead of paying high prices to ship crops across country by rail, barges could now carry them. The shipping prices would be cheaper for the farmers already strapped for money.

Not only could the shipping occur because of the dams, the dams also created the possibility of new ports inland from the ocean. The port furthest inland is located at Lewiston Idaho (Stearns, 1999). Adding the dams on the Columbia allowed the tributaries, such as the Snake River, to increase their water depths.

As this occurred larger vessels could navigate the rivers. There was less chance of them being grounded on sandbars in the rivers. Now with these new ports further inland people could send goods to the ocean even though they were hundreds of miles from the coast.

As World War II approached new industries cropped up in the Northwest; with these new industries came a need for affordable electricity. The following passage in The Organic Machine shows the uses during the war years:
During World War II, electricity from the dams went almost totally to defense. National defense, in turn, gave the region the industrial base it so longed for. The dams powered the shipyards of Portland, Vancouver, and Seattle, the aluminum mills the Defense Corporation built across the Northwest, and the factories that turned aluminum into airplanes. They supplied power to the top secret project at Hanford which was producing plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. It was federal power and federal investment that freed the Pacific Northwest from being a hewer of wood and drawer of water for the East. (White, 72)
The government brought large industries to the Northwest to produce goods for the war. These industries depended on the electricity produced by the dams to keep them running. They could use other sources of energy, such as wood, but the cost would have been higher. This would cut into the profits the businesses made. Besides the threat of loosing profits burning wood increased the level of pollution in the air. The air pollution level was minimized as alternative sources of fuel were discovered.

Building dams in the Northwest appeared to be a prosperous venture. The Northwest attracted much needed industry and made shipping affordable. The region also produced electricity at half the cost as other electrical costs in the U.S. The dams looked great from the surface but under that they lacked glamour. The follow quote from The Organic Machine summed up problems with the dams:
The very benefits they provided were their major problems. Dams would provide navigation on a river where existing navigational improvements went unused. They would bring more land into production in a country where farmers were already plagued by overproduction and low prices, and they would provide immense amounts of power which no one wanted to buy. The dams lacked economic justification. (White, 54)
Dams played a role in helping the Northwest, but they also hurt the people they tried to help. Instead of the dams making money for the area they lost money in the long run. The dams produced more electricity than could be used; this was a loss of money. The farmers produced more crops but without an outlet to buy them the crops went to waste. The dams, once called the savior of the Northwest, slowly destroyed what they attempted to build. According to Secretary of State Bruce Babbitt we paid an enormous price for the dams. (Barcott, 1999) Each year the price slowly becomes more apparent.

The early promoters of dam building believed the dams would save the West. “They foresaw more intimate contacts with the natural world and with each other, greater independence and more cohesive communities, an end to crowding, pollution, and waste (White, 59)”. They also believed “hydroelectric power would purify polluted industrial cities, and they would also purify human society. Electricity would restore workers to the countryside (White, 56).” Those were justifiable ideas but they never came true. Dam construction occurred, but this new form of energy did not end the pollution of the large cities. The burning of wood as an energy source might have decreased but new forms of pollution cropped up. Industries such as the aluminum industry released gases into the air during production. These new pollution forms replaced those of the past. Also the increase in people brought new products such as automobiles which contributed more to pollution problems. People flocked to larger areas to seek employment. Instead of bringing people away from the city, the dams produce jobs that lead people away from the countryside. Large cities such as Portland and Seattle sprang up. The dam builders’ theory backfired.

The most significant effect from the dams was the loss of salmon along the Columbia River. Salmon are anadromous; they hatch in freshwater and migrate back to the sea where they grow and develop. (Harris, 774). After two years they reach maturity then they migrate back to the river where they were born. Once in the rivers they spawn and then die. The young smolts are the only fish that return to the sea. Building dams along the Columbia has effected the salmon migration. Dams are too tall for the fish to leap over. Even if fishruns are present fish die as the leap over the dam. Young smolts returning to sea are unable to leap over the fishruns; they are sucked into the dam’s turbines and die. Fish numbers decline because fish can not make it back to spawning grounds to produce the next generation. Even if fish spawn the habitat along the river might not be suitable for their survival. Predators can easily catch the young smolts in slow moving water. The water temperature can be higher due to the presence of dams. If the temperatures increase the right foods will not grow and smolts will not have feed. These are just a few of the main problems the salmon face due to dam building. The fish represent the final piece of the Columbia River ecosystem; the system needs each piece in order to survive.

Society has cut the Columbia River in pieces and then manipulated each pieces for its own benefit. The Organic Machine says “we treated science as if it were literally a machine that can be disassembled and redesigned largely at will, as if its various parts can be assigned different functions with only a technical relation of parts and functions” (White, 111). The Columbia River is made of multiple components but without each piece the river can not survive. The fifty-one dams (Hathorn, 1992) break the river and its tributaries into pieces but each piece makes up the ecological whole; the Columbia River Basin only exists as long as each piece exists.

We no longer try to see the river in its entirety to us the river exists only as pieces. This view differs from the view of Native Americans. They believed everything was sacred. Sacred was defined as “made or declared holy; dedicated or devoted exclusively to a single use, purpose, or person; worthy of reverence and respect (Beck, 6)”. Looking at this definition one starts to see how the society views the Columbia River Basin. This area is not a sacred site for us. We no longer use it for one purpose. We tried to manipulate nature. The holy sense of the river no longer exists in our souls. We do not respect the river. Society has taken the river and broken the pieces down. We use the water as a source of energy. The fish needed in the ecosystem are killed off. These are the same fish the Native Americans considered sacred and relied upon for food. Fishing became a way of life for them. However they never lost the sacred sense of the fish. They performed ceremonies to ensure the return of the fish to their native grounds. They did not take the fish for granted; they knew their existence depended on the fish for food. Each year the fish returned. This all changed when society moved in with its dams. The fish did not return to their native ground, so people that depended on fish for food suffered.

Society went even further. We split the river into the dam, rocks, shores, fish, plants, and water. We saw the dams as a small part of the big picture. They provided electricity to fulfill our desires. The water produced the energy as it passed through the dam. The rocks of the river provided resistance to water flow, but these rocks could be scoured from the river as the water flowed. The rocks piled up at the dams because the water could not carry them past the grand structures. Fish depended on plants growing in the water for food. Each piece was connected, yet they were separate. We tried to control water flow to harness the maximum amount of energy from the river. We used the water levels to scour the river and create a more gentle flow. The rocks created resistance that slowed down water flow. We even went as far as too produce our own fish. Fish died on their way back to spawning grounds so we went into the laboratory and produced genetic strains of fish. These fish reproduced then we shipped them out to sea to develop. After developing we caught them on their return trip to freshwater. They were caught in nets and barged upriver to freshwater rivers for spawning. Smolts were recaptured and transported back to sea to develop. Society controlled every aspect of the river. No longer could we appreciate the river for what it was; we had to change the river to suit our needs. The sacredness disappeared and slowly so did the river.

The river still exists but not in the past form. “We have neither killed the river nor raped it, although people claim both are true… Nature still exists on the Columbia. It is not dead, only altered by our labor (White, 59)”. Society has altered the river to fit the needs of the time. We have taken from the river, but we have returned very little to it. More needs to be done to return the river to its natural state. Problem with this is people are not willing to give up cheap power, lower shipping costs, jobs, and the navigable river to return the river to its natural state. We want more than we are willing to give; and all the while we wish to control everything in our world. “The Columbia River, an organic machine, a virtual river, is at once our creation and retains a life of its own beyond our control (White, 109)”. Over the past 100 years we tried to control the Columbia River to create exactly what we wanted, but even today this has failed. Technology produced what we wanted but in the process it destroyed the natural part of the world which is needed for existence. To remove the dams might lower water temperatures, allow the fish to return to native freshwater breeding grounds, and change the course of the river, but the river can never be the same. Once a piece of nature is lost there is no hope of returning the piece. Nature needs all its pieces coexisting together to function correctly without that pieces of the ecosystem are lost. To replace pieces today society needs to try a more traditional approach like that of the Native Americans. They need to respect nature and realize that every piece exists as a sacred piece of the whole; without all the pieces the whole does not function. We can not return the Columbia River to a past state but we can help the remaining pieces survive. Replacing the pieces of the river could also help us return our souls. Bruce Barcott (1999) summed this idea up with the following quote:
Christians wash away sin in the baptismal river; Hindus sip the purifying waters of the Ganges. The idea of a river as a source of natural replenishment is so deeply ingrained in humankind that we don’t even think about it anymore. Maybe that’s the problem.
We have gotten so use to the river existing we take it for granted; we assume it will always exist. If we took a minute we would be amazed by the power the river holds. The mighty Columbia River, a source of power even technology could not harness, draws us back to our past if only we take the time to stop, look, and listen to the stories the river tells.


Barcott, Bruce. “Blow Up”. Outside Magazine Online.
February 1999. Online
Article Available Online by Clicking Here
(02 May 1999).

Beck, Peggy. The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life.
Redesigned Edition.
1995. Navajo Community College Press. Arizona.

Harris, C. Leon. Concepts in Zoology . Second Edition. 1996.
HarperCollins College Publishers, Incorporated. New York.

Hathorn, Clay. “Save Our Salmon, Save Our Soul”. Nation. (Ebsco Host).
(January 6, 1992): p14-16.

Stearns, Tim. “Fish, Water, Power, and Politics: A Dam Is Only a Tool – And If It’s Not Doing It’s Job, It’s Time to Put It Down.”
News Tribune Tacoma Washington. 31 May 1999. Online.
Article Available Online by Clicking Here
(27 April 1999).

White, Richard. The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River.
1995. Hill and Wang. New York.

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