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Wednesday, October 28, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Restoring salmon requires rethinking of dams

UPDATED: Sun., Nov. 8, 2015

History is full of grandiose hydraulic feats.

Egyptians, Chinese, Romans, and Incas all constructed ingenious waterways. In the 20th century, the irrigation system created by the Columbia Basin Project and the building of Grand Coulee Dam was as remarkable as any engineering feat in the world. Roughly 2.5 million acres of land that was once desert are watered from the Columbia.

Now, on the Columbia and Snake rivers, there are over 60 major dams. Within the Columbia ecosystem, including tributaries such as the Spokane River and Latah Creek, there are over 400 dams. All of this construction came with a price – killing the world’s greatest salmon fishery.

Much has been written about the trade of power for fish, but few people realize that 100 years ago two visions to irrigate the basin surfaced. The first was called the “Gravity Plan,” the second the “Pumping Plan.”

The first vision – a gravity plan to irrigate the basin by natural water flow – was promoted by Elbert F. Blaine of Grandview, chairman of the Washington State Public Service Commission. Blaine’s idea was to divert water from the Pend Oreille River at Albeni Falls, then carry the water by gravity flow via canal down the Little Spokane River Valley, across the Spokane River and down to Bonnie Lake to the south, then out onto the Columbia basin.

The Spokane Chamber of Commerce, the Washington Water Power Co. (Avista) and The Spokesman-Review actively supported this plan, which passed engineers’ scrutiny.

The second vision, the Pumping Plan, came from a modest, quiet attorney from Ephrata named William M. Clapp who observed that “if nature once dammed the Columbia with ice, why couldn’t we build a concrete dam at the same site.” The Pumping Plan was promoted aggressively in the Wenatchee Daily World by owner Rufus Wood. After 15 years of vigorous and fierce political debate, the Pumping Plan won the day, and in 1934-38, the largest concrete structure in the world dammed the Columbia River.

The original design of Grand Coulee was for a project 250 feet high with fish ladders. But New Deal politics and super egos added another 300 feet to the structure, and nixed the fish ladders. Thus, with a stroke of a pen, began the decimation of the world’s largest salmon fishery.

With America taking the lead, a type of religious fervor to control nature permeated the human psyche, and dam-building madness traveled worldwide. In America, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers competed with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for make-work projects to dam any free-flowing body of water.

Times have changed. In a more environmentally consciousness world, the Gravity Plan coupled with the original engineers’ design for Grand Coulee at 250 high with fish ladders would be the only choice. But all this is hindsight.

More dams and more hatcheries, as Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers advocates, are not the answer. With over 4.5 million hatcheries worldwide, 80 percent of human fish protein comes from hatcheries or fish farms; even in Alaska. If you feel the mass production of chicken is brutal, research the way salmon are raised in fish farms, and spawned by humans in hatcheries.

World population grows approximately 210,059 per day, the equivalent of Spokane’s population. Our society’s vision for water use needs corrective lenses; with some natural gravity. A revision of the Columbia River Treaty sponsored by area tribes, with their ultimate goal to get salmon above Grand Coulee, is gaining support. Removal of the four lower Snake River dams is also gaining support.

Dam removal, river restoration and fisheries create jobs, too. Fisheries are big business. Wild salmon must be more than metal sculptures and art hanging on Spokane walls. The future of the Columbia ecosystem needs to include natural, free flowing incubators for salmon runs. People of the world deserve to have the organic, natural omega 3 fatty acid that salmon provides.

We need to have the guts to correct a couple of our past mistakes and take the lead. After all, we are “Near nature, near perfect.”

Chris Kopczynski is the president of Kop Construction Co. Inc. and vice president of the Dishman Hills Conservancy.

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