Monday, September 6, 2010

Feeding at the Federal Trough -- A Brief History of the Mid-Columbia

The Mid-Columbia’s long history of feeding at the Federal trough seems to have evaporated like slack water from the memory of the many local Tea Party activists who grew “Didier for Senate” signs on their lawns like toadstools.

There seems to be a streak of Libertarianism in Eastern Washington that defies logic. We may be a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people, but the Mid-Columbia is of and by the government.

The Grand Coulee Dam was a depression era, deficit-spending, “stimulus” project orchestrated by Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Bureau of Reclamation; a project that infuriated the Republican Party, who considered it socialistic, impractical, and unaffordable. As a result of the Grand Coulee Dam, Mid-Columbia farmers had the water they so desperately needed to irrigate what one critic of the project had termed a “dead land, bitter with alkali,” and so hell-like that “even snakes and lizards shun it" (A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia, Blaine Harden, 1996)

Grand Coulee Dam is a large hydroelectric dam in Central Washington. It is made of 12 million cubic yards of concrete. It is the third largest hydroelectric dam in the world. It holds 9 million acres of water in the dam reservoir, and provides power to the large part of the Columbia Basin and the Northwest region.

The Columbia River watershed is today a vast network of dams and canals that provide government-subsidized irrigation, electricity, transportation, and flood control. The Columbia and Snake rivers in particular have been “engineered” to support commerce of one form or another. Their contribution to the Mid-Columbia economy is incalculable (to get some idea, check the Washington Department of Ecology's web site). Clint Didier himself acknowledged that, "without water from the Grand Coulee, we would be nothing more than a desert" (Seattle Times, 5/18/2010).*

Canals carry water from the Columbia River to farmers' fields

Here in the Tri-Cities there is another major economic outgrowth of the Grand Coulee Dam and its power generation -- Hanford, a critical part of the Manhattan Project. Hanford was located here in large part because of the “free” electricity available from Grand Coulee’s spinning turbines, and also because of the massive amount of water available in the Columbia; water essential for cooling Hanford’s plutonium plants.

The 560 square mile Hanford Nuclear Reservation on the Columbia River

The workforce created to build, operate, and maintain Hanford made it in 1943, the fourth largest city in the state of Washington. The sprawling complex of Army barracks, trailers, and tents, plagued by dust-laden “termination winds,” ultimately grew into the Tri-Cities.


Considered the most contaminated site in the U.S., Hanford has cost the American taxpayer in excess of 1 billion dollars per year to cleanup.

Another outgrowth of Hanford was the establishment of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), one of ten DOE national laboratories, and the single largest employer in the Tri-Cities. It brings to the community a workforce of unparalleled scientific and technological capability and potential, and has developed some of the most advanced research facilities in the world – facilities that attract scientists from around the world and place the Tri-Cities squarely on the high tech map.

Our community exists in its present state only because of the hundreds of billions of dollars the government has spent on dams, on Hanford, and in support of PNNL.

A recent Tri-City Herald article pointed out that while home sales around the nation declined during this economic downturn, the Tri-Cities registered an increase of 5.5% in the median resale price of homes, together with a 33% increase in home sales, going on to say that we are perhaps the only community in the state to see significant growth, thanks largely to federal stimulus money ($1.3 billion of which went towards Hanford cleanup).

Despite this long history of government largess flowing like the great Columbia itself to Eastern Washington, our Tea Party neighbors seem to have a mixed message for the federal government; keep the money flowing, cut our taxes, and leave us the hell alone.

But some day the flow of government money to Hanford will slow, just as the roar of white water over Kettle Falls did when that great, gray behemoth was set astraddle the canyons of the Grand Coulee. Will we be ready for that, will we be speaking with one voice, or will we still be talking out of both sides of our mouths? Will we build on the capabilities that government money has helped create, or will termination winds blow once again?



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*Of course, the other result of the Grand Coulee Dam, built without fish ladders, was to cutoff salmon runs, deprive the Colville Indians of their land, their means of livelihood, their culture, and their dignity.

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