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A RIVER LOST by Blaine Harden

A RIVER LOST

The Life and Death of the Columbia

By Blaine Harden

Pub Date: May 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-393-03936-6
Publisher: Norton

 Joining the recent stream of books on the Columbia River is this hard-hitting report on the policies that have governed this most engineered of all American rivers. As the son of a worker who helped build the Grand Coulee Dam and later worked at the Hanford nuclear site, Washington Post correspondent Harden (Africa, 1990) easily elicits candid opinions from the bargemen, farmers, and nuclear engineers who owe their prosperity to the federal government for erecting dams and supplying cheap, subsidized irrigation water and electricity. The ``managed oasis life'' came at great cost to the wild salmon of the river and to the Native Americans who based their culture on the Chinook and other species that were all but eradicated by the behemoth dams along the Columbia-Snake river system. Harden's informants on the dry, eastern side of Washington's Cascade Range invariably castigate environmentalists and city dwellers on the western side for their support of reservoir ``drawdowns,'' which would help speed migrating salmon to the ocean but bring seasonal halts to navigation and lowered electrical generation. Harden talks to former engineers who worked at Hanford building the atomic bomb, now consultants in a massive, costly clean-up effort at the plant, who minimize the consequences to the land and its residents who lived downwind. While respectful of the hardworking farmers he interviews, Harden lacks sympathy with their complaints against impending government policies that would alter their subsidized lifestyle. He labels their faith in the Columbia River Project ``irrigation theology'': ``The orthodoxy of the Project teaches that subsidies are freedom, salmon are frivolous, Indians are suspect, and rivers are fuel for sprinklers.'' Until the ascendancy of the Republican Congress, the river seemed about to benefit from Clinton administration policies that would once more permit an annual salmon migration. Although much of the story has already been written elsewhere, Harden's bold and well-supported commentary is a welcome addition to the literature of this majestic river. (maps, not seen)