The Dalles Dam-built in 1950s on the Columbia River during an era of road building and Cold War optimism. It brought the promise of hydroelectric power, flood control, navigational improvements, and even recreation. But, there’s another side. It destroyed rich native fishing grounds, flooded important cultural sites, interrupted the life cycle of myriad Pacific salmon species and subspecies, submerged breath-taking rapids on which not even seasoned Lewis and Clark would risk their gear.
This place will never be the same. This place, though, has made for a comfortable life for many of us. I’ve been the beneficiary of the cheap power produced by this and other Lower Columbia River dams. The cheap power drives industry and many economies. It’s exported to power-hungry markets, like LA. While today, I heat my home with wood and wind power, I did, once upon a time warm myself with power from the Columbia.
Once upon a time, this was a thriving trade and fishing location for several tribes. Many Native Americans still fish the river, some with boats and nets. Others use the traditional platforms that at one time sat above the misty rapids. The watershed is extensive, extending beyond Oregon and Washington into Idaho and British Columbia; historically, the fall migration delivered thousands of adult fish to the bottleneck at the rapids. And fishing was good. The nutrient-rich fish not only filled bellies, it built cultural foundations. Today, fewer adults return, fewer are available to feed the flesh and soul of the Native people.
Once upon a time, young salmon spawned in the Columbia watershed were washed toward the Pacific Ocean in the spring freshet. Today, spring only brings the rush of water over the spillways, and young salmon face that disorienting turbulence or the lethal turbines. Piscivores such as the Double-crested Cormorant await the vulnerable and disoriented salmon. They perch by the dozens on the towers that carry power away from the turbines, then fly to where the fishing is easy, below the dam, further adding to the challenges the salmon now face in maintaining their species.
If the dam is ever removed, the river will reclaim her channel, but the cultural course of several tribes has been forever scarred. The balance of many species has been upset for millennia. No, this place will never be the same.