NORTHWEST PASSAGE by William Dietrich


The Great Columbia River
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 An absorbing and pointed account of the taming of Washington's Columbia River and the consequences--both beneficial and disastrous--on the economy, the inhabitants, and the wildlife of the Pacific Northwest. Once a fearsome force whose whitewater frequently took the lives of fur traders and explorers, the Columbia, writes Dietrich (The Final Forest, 1992), a Pulitzer Prizewinning science reporter for the Seattle Times, is now as ``prim and controlled as an English butler as it steps down its staircase of dams.'' Fourteen major dams, including the massive Grand Coulee and Bonneville, as well as some 500 smaller ones, provide cheap hydroelectric power, deliver water for irrigation and industry, and facilitate barge traffic from the Pacific coast as far inland as Lewiston, Idaho. While not denying the advantages of harnessing the river's energy, Dietrich decries the lack of forethought by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Bureau of Reclamation in building the large, New Dealera dams. The migratory chinook salmon runs, once the basis of Native American existence in the Columbia River Basin and already severely overfished by the early 20th century, were further depleted by the dams. And despite the incredible 640,000 acres irrigated by the waters held back by the Grand Coulee Dam (an area nearly the size of Rhode Island), far fewer families and corporations actually farm the land than were envisioned when the dam was built. But what Dietrich laments most is the docile, regulated predictability of a once wild river. He crams an immense amount of information into this book: Besides statistics that describe both natural and man-made features along the Columbia, readers can learn about Woody Guthrie's part in publicizing hydroelectric power; the glacial flood in the last Ice Age that carved out the Grand Coulee; and why an art museum called Maryhill was built in 1914 on a desolate bluff above the Columbia. A must-read for anyone interested in the interplay of technology, nature, and human ambition.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-671-79650-X
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1995


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