Development of the Columbia River and Impacts on Native American Cultures and the Environment

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Development of the Columbia River by Lynette Boone, University of Oregon

1900 through the Great Depression

There were many factors driving development along the Columbia River in the early part of the 20th Century. In the period between 1880-1910, the arid Columbia Basin had been promoted by land developers as a good place in which to settle and farm. The new rail lines brought many settlers from the east in search of land and a new life in the west. What many migrants from the East didn't realize was that average rainfall was cyclical and could vary drastically from year to year. People who established homesteads struggled on the margins to farm in the dry, windy, often harsh landscape [1]. The many abandoned farms that Woody Guthrie saw on his tour route in Eastern Washington was testament to the failure of family farmers who had given up and moved elsewhere.
Since early in the century, people living along the Columbia River on the dry east side of the Cascade mountain range had dreamed of ways to get access to the water flowing by in the river canyon below. There were two schools of thought on the matter, one involving a giant irrigation canal and the other pumping the water out of the river. Pumping on such a grand scale would involve a lot of energy. There had been a few vocal promoters of a dam in the Grand Coulee, which was an ideal site [2]. The flowing river had already done most of the work of cutting a path all the way through to the granite bedrock, forming a solid foundation on which to build [3].
Private industry didn't have the resources or the desire to build a large dam in the area. The small population didn't warrant the generation of such huge amounts of power. It wasn't in the interest of private investors since a glut of surplus power would only drive prices down. With the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, the political climate was finally more conducive to the building of a large, federally funded dam at the Grand Coulee site. However, the plan had many critics, particularly in the private sector in the East, and among conservatives in Washington, D.C. who felt that the project was a white elephant. Many easterners viewed the Northwest as a region from which to extract raw resources, but not as a place for industrial development [4]. Progressives in the 1930's saw the widespread availability of cheap electrical power as an equalizing force in society. Electricity would allow people living in rural areas to enjoy most of the same modern conveniences as city dwellers: electric lights, heat, stoves and other appliances. They felt that many of the problems that the industrial revolution brought to urban areas could be alleviated by a migration of populations from cities to outlying, rural areas [5]. It was hoped that rural electrification and irrigation would spur development and provide homes and livelihoods for people, including dust bowl refugees, during the hard times of the depression. In an era when the federal government was taking the lead in mobilizing development through public works projects, the harnessing of hydropower on the Columbia River seemed a logical means of achieving these goals. The building of the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams employed 10,000 workers during the depression [6].

World War 2
The Grand Coulee dam began producing power only months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. With the United States' entry into WW II, the nation needed all of the power Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams could provide. During this time, 96 percent of hydroelectric power produced on the Columbia was being used for war manufacturing [7]. The fast growth of the aluminum smelting industry in the Northwest was spurred by the manufacture of aircraft for the war. One third of America's warplanes were made from aluminum produced with energy from Columbia River hydropower. Since aluminum smelting is such an energy intensive industry, the cheap electric power generated by the dams made the process much more cost effective. During these years, 75 percent of the energy produced by Bonneville and Grand Coulee went to aluminum manufacturers. War manufacturing transformed the Pacific Northwest. From 1940-1948 the population of Washington and Oregon swelled by 44 percent. People came to the region to work in war industries such as the shipyards of Portland and Vancouver in addition to the area's military bases [8].

Post War
The flood of 1948, which Stephen Kahn refers to, was the Vanport flood. The city of Vanport sprang up on the floodplain at the mouth of the Willamette across the Columbia from Vancouver, Washington. The community of Vanport housed many of the people who had moved to Oregon to work in the shipyards and other wartime manufacturing industries. Prior to the flood, it had been the second largest city in Oregon with a population of 20,000. In May of 1948 as the river crested, a dike broke destroying the city and killing 38 people. Five thousand homes were destroyed; 100,000 people had to be evacuated and 35,000 residents were left homeless [9]. The flood provided an impetus for the completion of McNary and Hungry Horse dams in the interests of flood control and power generation for the growing population and industry. However, in the 1950's the Eisenhower Administration placed a hold on starting any new Federal dam projects. By 1957, a combination of funding from private utilities and public agencies allowed for the construction of several new dams on the middle Columbia [10].
The B.PA. continued its role as planner, promoter and transmitter of electric power in the region. Over the years, demand for electricity increased as the region grew and new uses were found for electricity. The industries that had their start in the Northwest during the war, continued to thrive in the postwar era. In 1970 the aluminum industry consumed 40 percent of the energy sold by the B.P.A.[11]. The B.P.A. predicted ever-growing demands for electricity and advocated for building ahead of demand. Thus, by the 1970's over thirty large dams had been built on the Columbia and it's tributaries [12]. When the river had reached it's capacity for dams, the B.P.A. looked to nuclear power as a means of meeting the predicted demands of ever-increasing consumption. In the mid-seventies the Washington Public Power Supply System (W.P.P.S.S.) made plans to build five nuclear power plants whose power output the B.P.A. was to market. Due to mismanagement by the W.P.P.S.S., extreme cost overruns and safety concerns, only one plant was ever built. The incident brought about the largest bond default in U.S. history and a dramatic increase in B.P.A. rates [13].
Partly because of the failures of the W.P.P.S.S., congress passed the Northwest Power Act and created the Northwest Power Planning Council in 1980. Wholesale power revenues from the B.P.A fund the council. The primary goal of the Council has been to develop an electric power plan that guarantees adequate and reliable energy at the lowest economic and environmental cost to the Northwest. The efforts of the council reflect growing citizen concerns about the impact of the Columbia River hydropower dams on the natural environment and culture of the region. By the 1990's the B.PA. had undergone a major paradigm shift away from escalating consumption toward an ethic of conservation. Today, the B.P.A. is actively involved in promoting energy efficiency and alternative energy sources [14].


  1. William Dietrich, Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995, 227
  2. Mary W. Avery, Washington: A History of the Evergreen State Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1965 278
  3. Avery, 11
  4. Dietrich, 257
  5. Dietrich, 251
  6. Gene Tollefson, B.P.A. and the Struggle for Power at Cost. Portland, Or.: Bonneville Power Administration, 1987, 118
  7. Dietrich, 284
  8. Deitrich, 285
  9. White, Richard. The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995, 74
  10. White, 75
  11. White, 74
  12. White, 76
  13. White, 80
  14. Dietrich, 290

Impacts on Native American Cultures and the Environment

by Lynette Boone, University of Oregon

Many of the promises made by proponents of Columbia hydropower back in the 1930's have been fulfilled. The river was tamed for navigation and flooding has been controlled. Rural farms got electric power for the first time and at rates far less than the national average. Irrigation has made farming possible in the arid Columbia Basin. Columbia River power was crucial to the war effort and the resulting industries have been an asset to the economy of the region. Hydroelectric power is the largest source of renewable electricity in the world, and the Pacific Northwest obtains two-thirds of its electricity from hydroelectric dams. Hydro plants are the least expensive source of electricity with typical production costs less than a third that of coal or nuclear. In addition, hydroelectric power does not pollute the environment in the way that unsustainable fossil and nuclear power can [1].
Still, as Pete Seeger comments in the videotape, today people aren't as enthusiastic about building dams. With hindsight, we now can see the unintended negative impacts of the large dams on the culture and environment of the Columbia river. Many people today mourn the loss of the free flowing river and the wild salmon runs, which were central to Native American culture along the Columbia. Evidence of the struggle over restoration of salmon and the future fate of some of the dams is seen daily in newspaper headlines. Some might argue that if Woody Guthrie were alive today and writing songs of social protest, he would be among those calling for the removal of the dams.

When Woody Guthrie toured the Columbia in May of 1941 seeking inspiration from the river, and the people building the dams upon it, he also stopped to talk to the Indians at CeliloFalls. It was at the time of the spring Chinook run, and Woody watched as the Indians standing on wooden platforms used long handled dipnets and spears to harvest the teaming numbers of salmon. For generations, Celilo Falls had been an important gathering place for Native Americans from all over the Northwest. For the local tribes of Wasco, Wichrams, and Wyams, the Salmon fishery at Celilo Falls provided sustenance and enabled them to barter for beadwork, furs, and other necessities. Celilo Falls was a sacred site where celebrations and ceremonial activities connected to the journey of the salmon would take place for days and sometimes weeks at a time [2].

In the 1850's, the Indians had given up their land and certain liberties in order to maintain hunting and fishing rights in treaties with the U.S. government [3]. The building of the Dalles dam was proposed at the site of Celilo Falls in 1947. The Celilo Falls Indians and the Bureau of Indian Affairs testified against the building of the dam, arguing that doing so would take away their livelihood and was a violation of promises made in the treaties. The protests went unheeded. The Indians were paid 27.2 million in damages and rehabilitation programs were recommended for displaced fishermen. In 1957 with a crowd of onlookers, the roaring Celilo Falls were submerged as the dam backed up the river, turning it into Celilo Lake [4]. Celilo Falls was the last of the Indian dip-netting sites to be destroyed. The building of Bonneville dam had drowned the 6-mile stretch previously known as "The Cascades of the Columbia" [5]. Lake Roosevelt covers the site of Kettle Falls since the building of Grand Coulee dam [6].

The disruption of Native American salmon fishing sites dealt a huge blow to the stability of these cultures. In some cases, the government did not follow through on relocation assistance and the building of replacement housing [7]. By their own accounts, before 1890, the Northwest tribes typically harvested 5 million Columbia River salmon in a year. By the mid-nineties, the number had shrunk to 30,000. Beyond the numbers, there is a deep, collective sense of loss among native people whose spiritual beliefs and cultural identities remain tied to the salmon. The salmon evolved to become an essential part of a complex ecosystem dependent upon the nutrients and energy that the fish brought back with them from the sea . Ironically, the Army Corps of Engineers defended the building of the Dalles dam as a conservation measure that would prevent over fishing by the Indians. In fact, over- fishing, primarily by commercial and sports fishers has been a factor in salmon decline [9]. There are many other elements contributing to the falling number of salmon. Pollution from residential and industry sources affect water quality. Farming in the Columbia Plateau brought erosion and consequent clogging of streams with sediment. Fertilizers and pesticides from agricultural runoff pollute the river. The raising of livestock near rivers has been destructive to riparian habitats. Deforestation has increased soil erosion, blocked streams and elevated water temperatures. Unpredictable ocean conditions such as El Nino events have also been harmful to salmon [10].

As reflected in Stephen Kahn's statement about fish ladders at Bonneville allowing salmon to pass through the dams, engineers and fishery managers of the 1940's were optimistic that salmon could co-exist alongside hydropower and other river development. But, as Kahn also acknowledged, the salmon are "not going through so well now though." While salmon may have been able to pass over one dam quite easily, today there are fourteen large dams on the main stem of the Columbia River. There are more than 500 dams in the entire Columbia Basin. A sockeye salmon returning to it's spawning grounds in Idaho would have to jump up a total of more than seven hundred fish ladder steps. At one foot each, this would be comparable to scaling a skyscraper [11]. Another problem with fish ladders is that salmon are naturally more attracted to the strong currents of the power house outlets or the spillway than the slack water typical of the entrances of most fish ladders. Migrating salmon only have so much stored fat and energy in their bodies to sustain them on their journey and time wasted getting around dams puts them at jeopardy of starving to death before reaching their native stream to spawn [12]. Big dams like Grand Coulee are simply too high to allow fish ladders. Seventy percent of Columbia Basin river and stream miles which had been salmon habitat are now blocked by dams which prevent the migration of adult coho, chinook, and sockeye salmon from the ocean to their upstream spawning grounds [13].

The Columbia is a complex system of reservoirs carefully controlled to release and contain water at a rate consistent with electricity demands. If the river were flowing naturally, it's flow would peak during the months of May, June, and July. Salmon depend upon the high water of the spring and summer months to ease their migration upstream to spawn. The high water is also crucial for young salmon that need a strong current in order to be flushed safely out to the ocean. Conversely, our greatest energy demands occur in winter to provide heat and light. The engineers who control the dams store water in reservoirs during the summer, releasing it during fall and winter months to meet peak energy demands. This causes water levels to be low during the summer months when salmon need strong currents. While measures are being taken to correct this problem, basically, human needs are at odds with the needs of the salmon [14].

When a dam blocks a river, the river habitat changes to a lake habitat. In the still, deep pools formed by dams, water becomes stratified, with warm water on top and cold water on the bottom. The cold water looses oxygen and becomes uninhabitable for salmon [15]. The slack water of dam reservoirs is also ideal habitat for predatory fish like the northern pikeminnows, which prey on juvenile salmon [16]. Dams present several other problems for smolt (young salmon) in their migration to the sea. In order to get through dams, smolts must pass through turbines, the blades of which may chew them up. Some dams have had new kinds of turbines installed that are more fish friendly. To avoid damage to fish by spinning turbine blades, other dams spill water and young salmon over the top of the dam. Unfortunately, water falling over spillways can force air bubbles into the water, which can be absorbed into the fishes' tissue, ultimately killing it. Some estimates indicate mortality rates as high as 97% for young salmon passing through a gauntlet of nine dams [17].

In 1990, the Shoshone-Bannock tribe of southern Idaho successfully petitioned to have the Snake River Sockeye put on the nation's endangered species list. Since then, other groups have petitioned to add several species of salmon and steelhead to the list [18]. Efforts by fishery agencies at mitigating the loss of salmon runs has focused on the following areas:

  1. Breeding hatchery fish.
  2. Restoration of rivers and streams previously damaged by habitat destruction.
  3. Barging smolts downstream to save them the trauma of going over or through dams.
  4. Regulating and allocating the fish catch among various fishing interests 19.
Some scientists and environmentalists argue that attempting to augment wild fish runs with hatchery fish simply won't work. In the past twenty years, even hatchery supplemented salmon runs have been declining sharply. Some studies that suggest that hatchery fish actually harm wild runs because they introduce diseases, compete for food, and are genetically inferior. Wild salmon are genetically coded from thousands of years of evolution to know how to find their spawning site. They also seem to have a superior ability to make the adaptations necessary for the transition from fresh to saltwater and back again. Some feel that hybridization will spell the end for truly wild salmon runs [20]. Today, nine out of ten migrating juvenile Columbia River salmon were born in a fish hatchery, not a stream [21]. Many people concerned by the decline of the salmon have been looking for ways to restore the Columbia and it's tributaries to a more natural state. Some are calling for the partial removal of several dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. They believe that these modifications would provide salmon the colder, cleaner, free flowing water that they need for survival [22].


  1. Union of Concerned Scientists, Energy, The Hydropower Resource, On-line, website
  2. Joseph Cone, A Common Fate: Endangered Salmon and the People of the Pacific Northwest. (Oregon State University Press, 1996) 143
  3. Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. (Hill and Wang, 1995) 99
  4. White, 100
  5. William Dietrich, Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River. (Simon and Schuster, 1995) 157
  6. Dietrich, 181
  7. Dietrich, 376
  8. Cone, 140
  9. White, 101
  10. White, 90
  11. Dietrich, 328
  12. White, 94
  13. White, 89
  14. Cone, 119
  15. Union of Concerned Scientists.
  16. Dietrich, 341
  17. White, 102
  18. Dietrich, 327
  19. White, 97
  20. Dietrich, 332
  21. Blaine Harden, A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia (WW. Norton & Company, 1996) 226
  22. Jim Lichatowich, Salmon Without Rivers: A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisisn, (Island Press, 1999) 224

Discussion Questions

Before the video:

  1. What kinds of economic benefits can people derive from a river? 2. What kinds of non-economic benefits can people derive from a river?
After viewing the video:

  1. The generation of American's who built the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams seemed to focus on the benefits like irrigation, cheap electric power, improved navigation and flood control. What factors do you think prevented them from considering any possible negative impacts of the dams?
  2. If Woody Guthrie were alive today, do you think he would still be writing songs extolling the virtues of dams? Why or why not?
  3. If breaching some of the dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers could save wild salmon runs from extinction, would you be willing to pay more money for electricity in order to save the salmon? Why or why not?
  4. If we collectively decided to ban all hydroelectric power generation tomorrow, what alternatives would we have in meeting our need for power? What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of the alternatives?


  1. In addition to providing employment to thousands of unemployed people during the depression, the proponents of the Columbia river dams in the 1930's listed the following as benefits to society, which would result from building the dams
    • The dams would provide irrigation for the arid Columbia Basin, which would encourage small, family farms in the region and provide a home and livelihood for dustbowl refugees.
    • The dams would provide electric power, at cost, to average citizens including those living in rural locations.
    • The dams would make the Columbia easier to navigate and allow shipping to ports as far east as Idaho.
    • The dams would control flooding in the communities lining the Columbia.
  2. To what extent have the dams on the Columbia lived up to these promises? Have students write research papers that discuss these issues.
  3. Near the end of the videotape, Pete Seeger says, "People aren't quite so enthusiastic about building dams as they used to be. There are good and bad things about everything in the universe, I expect. It all depends on where you are, and when you are, and who you are, and what you are, then you can decide it it's good or bad." Have students make a list of the good and the bad things about hydroelectric power from their perspectives and have a discussion.
  4. Take a field trip to a dam and do a class tour with someone there who can explain the process of how hydropower is generated. Upon returning to the classroom, have students make a flowchart showing the process of converting moving water to energy.
  5. Have students look for newspaper articles from the late 1930's to early 1940's that take a negative stance on the building of Grand Coulee dam. In comparison, have students look for recent articles that are critical of the construction of the Three Gorges dam in China. Have students write papers discussing the main issues in each case, and how the nature of the criticisms differ.
  6. Have students research the impact of the building of The Dalles dam on Native American's for whom Celilo Falls was an important fishing and gathering spot on the Columbia river. Have students write songs from the perspective of the Native Americans who were present the day that the dam's reservoir inundated Celilo falls.



Cone, Joseph. A Common Fate: Endangered Salmon and People of the Pacific Northwest. Oregon State University Press, 1996.

Dietrich, William. Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River. Simon and Shuster, 1995.

Downs, Vaughn L. The Mightiest of Them All: Memories of Grand Coulee Dam American Society of Civil Engineers, 1993.

Echevarria, John. D. Rivers at Risk: The Concerned Citizen's Guide to Hydropower. Pope Barrow, Richard Roose-Collins.

Ficken, Robert E. Rufus Woods, the Columbia River & the Building of Modern Washington. 1995

Fisher, Lorena S. The Bonneville Dream. Binford & Mort, 1991.

Harden, Blain. A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia. Norton, Ww., 1996.

Lichatowich, Jim. Salmon Without Rivers. Island Press, 1999

McCully, Patrick. Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams. Zed Books, 1998.

Palmer, Tim. The Columbia: Sustaining a Modern Resource. Mountaineer Books, 1997.

Pitzer, Paul C. Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream. Washington "Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream. Washington State University Press, 1994.

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

Web sites:

Oregon Sea Grant, Internet Resources: Salmon and Watersheds

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Northwestern Division, Fish Management Division

Bureau of Reclamation

The Northwest Power Planning Council

ENVS61 Kenyon College's Capstone Course in Environmental Science

Union of Concerned Scientists, Energy, Hydropower

The Grand Coulee Dam

The Bonneville Power Administration

The Columbia & Snake Rivers Campaign

Oregon State University Extension Service: A Snapshot of Salmon in Oregon

International Rivers Network


Empty Promises, Empty Nets. Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission: Wild Hare Media, 1994.

The Grand Coulee Dam. A & E Home Video, New Video Group, 1993.

Great River of the West: The Columbia River. Robert S. Biheller, Michael F. Williams and Mary Rose. Screenwrights, 1993.

Journey of the Kings. Northwest Power Planning Council, 1990.

Last Days of Celilo. Team Video Productions, 1988.

Matter of Trust. Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission: Wild Hare Media, 1995.

My Strength is From the Fish. Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission: Wild Hare Media, 1994.

The Return of the Salmon: Restoring the Fish to Rivers and Watersheds. Oregon Sea Grant Communications, 1995.

When the Salmon Runs Dry. KIRO Inc.; Oakland CA: The Video Project, 1992.