After a two-decade absence, Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden returned to his small-town birthplace in the Pacific Northwest to follow the rise and fall of the West's most thoroughly conquered river. Harden's hometown, Moses Lake, Washington, could not have existed without massive irrigation schemes. His father, a Depression migrant trained as a welder, helped build dams and later worked at the secret Hanford plutonium plant. Now he and his neighbors, once considered patriots, stand accused of killing the river. As Blaine Harden traveled the Columbia--by barge, car, and sometimes on foot--his past seemed both foreign and familiar. A personal narrative of rediscovery joined a narrative of exploitation: of Native Americans, of endangered salmon, of nuclear waste, and of a once-wild river now tamed to puddled remains. Part history, part memoir, part lament, "this is a brave and precise book," according to the New York Times Book Review. "It must not have been easy for Blaine Harden to find himself turning his journalistic weapons against his own heritage, but he has done the conscience of his homeland a great service."Amazon.com Review
A century ago the place where the Columbia River flows into thePacific Ocean was a violent cauldron of churning water, all but unnavigable.But the mighty river was tamed by the building of a series of dams, includingthe colossal Grand Coulee, to provide cheap hydroelectric power andirrigation water. Farms bloomed in the desert; nuclear reactors mushroomed onthe river bank. Today barges ply the river, and Lewiston, Idaho, is an inlandport. But the negative aspects of human impact are also apparent--thedepletion of salmon stocks and the destruction of Native American culturesdependent on the salmon. Washington Post journalist Harden, a Northwestnative, returns to examine the changes man has wrought. Harden's enthrallingaccount is balanced and thorough. ... Read more
Customer Reviews (14)
A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia
The book arrived on time and in pretty good shape.Some writing in the book.It pretty certain that someone had read the book real close.
A book opportunity lost
This book has all the ingredients needed for a good dinner, but the cook
didn't wash his hands. As a lover of the Columbia River country, and not
a fan of dams, this book should have been an enjoyable, educational
reading experience for me. I didnt know all the details of how the river
came to be what it is today, and many of those facts are contained here.
But I also like a semblence of objectivity in my readings so I can make
my own mind up.But Harden's bitterness and anger taints the book like
bad meat. Hey-I'm angry
too, but I want to reach that conclusion on my own, not have it
spoon-fed to me. Though he presents himself as a native son because he
grew up in Moses Lake, he writes with the distance of a true outsider.
Although an important part of the Columbia story is the effect of dams
on native people, and he seems sympathetic, it is clear he knows very
little about native people of the area, he develops no real rapport with
any and so he writes at arm's length, thin, distant portraits with no
real depth. It doesn't sound like he had ever even been to the Colville
Reservation before writing the book, despite working briefly at Grand
Coulee Dam a few
feet away. His descriptions of what he should expect there came from
and of course were wildly inaccurate.
On the other hand, he writes with clear contempt for most people who
make a living on or from the river, including those interviewed for the
book. This is his right on a personal level but he seems so disingenuous
in his interactions with these people it doesn't help his credibility
one bit. Does he tell them beforehand he is writing a bitterly one-sided
account, or does he misrepresent himself to get a "more real" story?
something just doesnt smell right about it.
He doesn't provide references for many important statements
and conclusions, and this would have helped the book's credibility
because his is by now suspect. I plodded through this book a few pages
at a time, finally finishing it after 2 months only because I care a lot
about the river and the region and kept hoping the book would improve.
It did, but not much.
While it has its good parts (the parts
about subsidizing area farmers was best), overall I found it much less
than I would have hoped due to Harden's placement of himself into the
story.This major fault improves somewhat about halfway through the
book, but the bad taste is already there. If he could have presented the
river's story somewhat impartially, without injecting himself, and
provided references, he could have created an important and credible book.
Maybe he will look back at this as a crude first draft someday, and
The River Doesn't Run Through It Anymore
This journalistic narrative, written when Blain Harden returned to his Columbia River Basin hometown during a mid-1990s sabbatical from the Washington Post, summarizes the history of the massive U.S. Government funded hydroelectric, irrigation and nuclear energy development of the Columbia River system in eastern Washington and adjacent parts of Idaho and Oregon. Harden's approach is a well crafted, articulate chronology of events interspersed among interviews with then-still-living civil engineers and workers who built the dams (including the author's father), self-described redneck barge crews, American Indians, irrigator farmers, nuclear engineers, supposed "downwind" victims of nuclear engineers, wildlife management officials and environmental activists. Oddly, he never interviews any significant politician, and he describes the actions of civil service engineers and bureaucrats as if they built this multi-billion dollar project over forty years on their own fanatic authority, sort of like renegade CIA agents supposedly taking over a jungle-clad third world country without anyone telling them to.
The gist of A River Lost is that beginning in 1933 and ending in the 1970s, Federal and quasi-Federal agencies, acting under the direction of six presidents, converted one of the world's largest and wildest rivers into an all-but-completely tamed series of lakes behind hydroelectric dams. The result is a massive amount of inexpensive electricity, irrigation for more than 500,000 acres of farmland, an economical means to transport commodities from an interior desert toward Asian markets and, totally unplanned by its originators, a means to produce plutonium for atomic bombs that ended World War II and armed the U.S. in the Cold War. The most negative side effect was the virtual destruction of the Columbia's unimaginably immense migrating salmon population along with a traumatically negative impact on remnant groups of American Indians dependent on the salmon for sustenance and culture.
Harden makes a pretty good case that farmers and industries who benefited from the Columbia River industrialization only repaid a small fraction of the cost, Indians were not consulted, respected or compensated, billions of dollars were lost on an ill-conceived nuclear power project and there's been a lot of environmental damage, primarily to salmon and other fish populations, as well as possible damage to human health. As unpleasant as it may be for some of the "bad guys" in this saga to acknowledge I think the basic story is accurate. But as for Harden's exposé of unfairness, corruption, self dealing and unforeseen or unconsidered negative impacts... and from a government program!... how shocking!
Well, not really. A similar narrative could be constructed about virtually every large-scale government economic development and social engineering project since the 1930s: other river development schemes, so-called urban renewal, interstate highways, War on Poverty, public education system, etc., etc., etc. All of those programs have winners, losers and, typically, unintended, unacknowledged or uncompensated environmental, health or social costs. Such is the nature of government programs, but nobody seems able to resist them.
To me the most interesting aspect of this book is how Harden characterizes, or declines to characterize, the political affiliation of key players.
The initial Grande Coulee project and its unthinking destruction of salmon runs and Indian culture in the name of New Deal progress, and later the atomic city at Hanford, all occurred under President Franklin Roosevelt. Harden tells us that after WWII the remainder of the dam building, salmon and Indian destruction, sweetheart deals for farmers, barge operators, electrical utilities, et al, were driven through Congress, no matter who was president, by two powerful Washington senators, Magnuson and Jackson. The two senators were each in office about 40 years, and Harden refers to them ten times, asserting they abetted much sweetheart dealing, environmental damage and so forth. But Harden doesn't identify Roosevelt, Magnuson or Jackson as Democrats.
Then, with all the dams built, all the subsidies enshrined, all the salmon dying and Magnuson and Jackson gone from the scene, an environmentalist-led "Salmon War" heats up in the early 1980s. That's when newly elected Washington Senator Gorton appears in the same paragraph where Harden refers to "evil... political games" and - finally! - Harden fearlessly dares put a name to regressive forces that refuse to right wrongs wrought by half a century of dam, irrigation and atomic energy programs. We learn Senator Gorton is a... a... a... Republican!!!!! And when Gorton reappears in the story Harden tells us once again, in case we missed it, that Gorton is (still!) a Republican.
Things get worse again for salmon because, as Harden tells it, a mean Republican is elected to replace a nice Democrat as governor of neighboring Idaho. Apparently it's no problem, because its unmentioned by Harden, that Democrats almost always governed much larger Washington where most of the salmon's problem is located. Anyway, we learn that although Democrats controlled congress for about 56 of the first 60 years of the Columbia River development things only become hopeless for the fish when, just before Harden completes the book, Republicans take control of Congress in 1994.Did I mention Harden is a Washington Post reporter?
My own postscript is that in the ten years since Harden wrote A River Lost irrigators' fortunes declined as foreign producers undercut even their subsidized costs. The aluminum industry imploded. Communities Harden characterizes as terminally whitebread are increasingly dominated by Mexican immigrants. The Colville Indians who lost prime fishing grounds to Grand Coulee Dam now benefit from its cheap electricity because they own the largest lumber processing mill in Okanogan County as well as three well-lit casinos in the Columbia Basin. And some Eastern Washington counties now spend more on fish habitat restoration than human health care.
A River Lost has excellent sketch maps throughout each section that help place people and events. There are nine pages of footnotes and sources and thirteen pages of index. But as far as I can tell there's no mention to which political party Franklin Roosevelt, the guy who started the whole thing, belonged.
So much good information
A full and complete modern history of the Columbia River. At times sad, always intriging. Harden has done an excellent job of combining interviews with research that makes an excellent read.
Wonderful writing. Interesting points of view.
Once in a great while a book comes along that is so beautifully written, with stories so well told, that the subject matter seems secondary to the writer's ability to sustain interest. For me, with little interest in the northwest (I've been there twice), this was such a book. It is from Harden's exceptional skill as a writer and narrator of stories that the Columbia River suddenly became of great interest as I turned his pages.
"A River Lost" tells the story and history of the Columbia River and the environmental, economic and aesthetic impact of daming that river in the first half of the last century. Especially interesting are the stories and points of view of those who work and live on its shores, the fate of the native indians who have lived in the region for hundreds of years and the differences in culture between the Starbucks yuppies west of the Cascades and the blue collar workers so dependant on the water and its billions in federally subsidized benefits to the east.
Highly praised in reviews by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, the Village Voice, The Seattle Times and Publishers Weekly, it is a great read for the information, for the writing, for a piece of American history.
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