It Must Be the Water

by Vince Welch on October 20, 2011

There must be something in the drinking water here in Oregon, and specifically in Portland, my hometown. The unfiltered H2o from Bull Run Watershed 26 miles east of Mt. Hood is some of the best, sweet-tasting in the country in terms of raw quality of surface water. That’s rainwater, mis amigos, 130 inches of unadulterated northwest nectar. No second-hand French-sounding liquid in the form of snowmelt or glacial runoff. We not only drink the stuff, we bath in it, swim in it and flush it. Religious folks like it for ceremonial use. Because we have so much water that is so good, we can afford to sanctimoniously spout off about conservation and green-this and green-that. God bless us. This quiet moral superiority irritates the thirsty Californians to no end. (I know. Although born in Oregon, I grew up in the Bay Area). Even though we don’t drink from the Columbia, our neighbors to the south have been eyeing the Great River for decades, harping that we have more than we need and grimacing that we “waste” more than we use. Just look at where the Columbia meets the Pacific Ocean. Enough to make you cry.

Of course, we Oregonians are no better. While the Californians covet our agua, some of us harbor wet dreams about taking out four dams on the Lower Snake between Lewiston, Idaho, and the confluence with the Columbia. These dams — Ice Harbor, Lower Monument, Little Goose, Lower Granite — are multi-use dams providing navigation, hydropower, irrigation and recreation. At 465 miles from the Pacific Ocean, Lewiston is the farthest inland seaport on the West Coast, not exactly your typical beach town. The urge to spread our green vibes into the arid landscape beyond The Dalles is, ironically, a historically Western impulse. Our shade of green, however, freaks out more than a few of our Idaho cousins.

It is my contention that the purity of our drinking water accounts for Portland  residents’ abundance of imagination, quirky, half-bubble-off intelligence, genetic contrariness, book-reading habits, absence from church and active sex life since the winters seem to last for eternity. Why else would such polite drivers patch a “Keep Portland Weird” bumper sticker on the cars?  But I digress. What I fear is that the water we Oregonian (and Washingtonians) imbibe has led us to overstep, to engage in peculiar behavior (even by Oregon standards) beyond the pale: we are pulling down dams left and right. OK. Not Glen Canyon-size dams, but dams nonetheless. Some claim it’s simply Left-Coast liberal progressive politics run amok. Need I point out that all these people, many since childhood, drink the water here?

In a recent New York Times article, Matthew Preusch claimed that, during the 1950s and 1960s, somewhere in the U.S. a dam went up every six minutes. EVERY SIX MINUTES? It’s an exciting, sexy factoid, hard to fathom, that makes your heart race or your blood pressure soar. According to American Rivers, a non-profit conservancy, about 40 dams a year around the country are removed. That’s one every nine days, or for you mathematicians, one every 216 minutes. Not so sexy. At this moment there is something like 75,000 aging dams of varying sizes whose value is being questioned. Someone else can do the calculations.

So I wonder, of those 40 dams a year, how many go kerplunk in the Northwest? Anyone who follows the dam down-sizing movement knows that the Elwha Dam on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula has seen its last days. (Read Ana Maria Spagna’s blog “When the Walls Come Tumbling Down”) The estimated destruction date is set for sometime in 2012. Although this is reason for celebration, there is a dearth of scientific study on the results of dam removal. How many fish return and how long it takes them to get home remains an unknown.

In the last five years, Oregon is averaging about one downed dam a year, with more, if you pardon the pun, under the horizon.

In southern Oregon, four dams on the Rogue River came tumbling down piece by piece  in recent years: Elk Creek and Gold Hill Division Dams in 2008; Savage Rapids Dam in 2009; and Gold Ray Dam in 2010. Again, swim home little fishes.

Here’s an historical example of more peculiar behavior in Oregon. In 1902, the Golden Drift Mining Company constructed the Ament Dam upriver from Grants Pass. Built primarily to provide water for their mining operation, the owners failed to keep their promises to provide irrigation and electrical power to the residents. The dam was also a “massive fish killer.” People were furious. Local lore suggests that vigilantes dynamited part of the dam in 1912. Ed Abbey wasn’t even born yet, so we can de-canonize him and let him rest in peace. The owners rebuilt, but the dam was removed once and for all in 1921, the same year the Savage Rapids Dam was completed in roughly the same vicinity as the Ament Dam. Funny thing: the Savage Rapid Dam was soon to be considered a “massive fish killer.”  Go figure.

Equally astounding is what has happened among the contending interest groups over water issues on the Klamath River. (The 260-mile Klamath rises in the southeast portion of Oregon and flows roughly 260 miles southwest through California, cuts through the Cascade Range before debouching into the Pacific Ocean). Farmers, fishermen, Indian tribes, government agencies and environmental organizations, after two years of closed-door negotiations, have arrived at (key word: conditional) agreement on water use. If all parties sign the agreement, removal of four dams (Iron Gate, Copco # 1 and #2 and John C. Boyle) would begin in 2020.

Closer to my home in Portland, the Sandy River flowed freely for the first time since 1912 when the Marmot Dam was decommissioned and removal was completed in October 2007. In 2008 PGE (Pacific Gas Electric) removed the Little Sandy Dam on the river of the same name. Hooray!

What irks me about these dam removals, I must confess, is my voyeuristic impulse. I have missed the action, the grinding sound of water winning, moving rock and cement debris downstream. This unseemly compulsion is probably the result of laziness as well as my years of working as a guide in Grand Canyon, where I often had the opportunity to stand beside certain rapids at certain water levels and hear the river rumbling and growling as boulders and rocks are dragged downstream. It’s an eerie, unfamiliar sound, guttural and from the bowels of the river bed, an invisible landslide under water that tends to untether one’s imagination just as the idea of a hidden river beneath or adjacent to the one in front of your eyes (hydrologists call it hyporheic flow) makes mischief with our creative faculties.

All, however, is not lost. On the morning of October 26, 2011, de-construction workers are going to blast out the remaining 25-foot plug at the 90-foot base of the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River near Hood River in the Columbia Gorge, an hour or more drive from my home. I suspect the decision is not activist or drinking-water induced, but really a cost-saving measure for the company involved. No matter. It is a potent symbolic gesture. It will not be high drama, a ka-boom moment. The dam will not fall, but the 92-acre reservoir behind it will drain like a badly leaking faucet carrying a silt load of major proportions. How the river will run afterwards is anyone’s guess. Fish and boaters are happy. Actual demolition of the dam will begin next April or May. My plan is make my way to the White Salmon and bear witness to the spectacle. Maybe there is a party somewhere afterwards.

You would think, for all my river romanticism palaver, that I am anti-dam. I’m not. During three decades of running rivers and beyond, I have often gazed begrudgingly at the beauty of the monoliths and admired the ingenuity of the engineers and honest labor of the construction workers, all the while knowing that some of these dams were slowly doing greater or lesser harm to the environment. I have failed to come up with an adequate explanation for these contending impulses.

After visiting Grand Canyon in the 1930s, English travel writer J.B. Priestly wrote (in “Midnight in the Desert”) that he did not miss the scenic wonder too badly, that “it was enough to know that it was there.” In 2011, it is enough for me to know that a few more dams are not there. I don’t suppose the people who stand to lose by these dams coming down feel that way, just as the fishermen on the Rogue at the turn of the 19th century and the Indian tribes along the Klamath for hundreds of years were not too pleased when they lost their homes, livelihood or way of life.

In the West it’s the water, always the water.


A river is a natural watercourse, usually freshwater, flowing toward an ocean, a lake, a sea or another river. In a few cases, a river simply flows into the ground or dries up completely before reaching another body of water; a cyber location where fresh- and saltwater stories, anecdotes, history, opinions, breaking news, obituaries, community exchanges, and, OK, an occasional (but civilized) rant of a river nature meet and mix; the place where the flotsam and jetsam of river life collect.

Vince Welch is a former professional river guide, long-time MG contributor and author of The Doing of the Thing: The Brief, Brilliant Career of Buzz Holmstrom. He continues to run rivers throughout the West with his family and other ancient mariners and is currently completing biography of Amos Burg. He lives in Portland, Ore.

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