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A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia Paperback – November 17, 1997

4.2 out of 5 stars 31 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

A century ago the place where the Columbia River flows into the Pacific Ocean was a violent cauldron of churning water, all but unnavigable. But the mighty river was tamed by the building of a series of dams, including the colossal Grand Coulee, to provide cheap hydroelectric power and irrigation water. Farms bloomed in the desert; nuclear reactors mushroomed on the river bank. Today barges ply the river, and Lewiston, Idaho, is an inland port. But the negative aspects of human impact are also apparent--the depletion of salmon stocks and the destruction of Native American cultures dependent on the salmon. Washington Post journalist Harden, a Northwest native, returns to examine the changes man has wrought. Harden's enthralling account is balanced and thorough. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Although shorter than the Mississippi, the Columbia River, on the border between Washington and Oregon, is many times more powerful. Its energy comes from its steepness?it falls twice as far as the Mississippi in half the distance, and is what so attracted government engineers interested in producing hydroelectric power. Numerous dams, including Grand Coulee, "larger than any structure ever built in world history," transformed the river into a huge, navigable lake making Lewiston, Idaho, an unlikely seaport. "The river was killed more than sixty years ago and was reborn as plumbing." Washington Post journalist Harden goes back to his boyhood home (Moses Lake, Wash.) and examines the changes?sociological, environmental, economic and aesthetic?that the taming of this great river wrought. His wonderful account touches on the destruction of Native American cultures dependent on the river and its salmon, and on the near extinction of the salmon themselves. Also fairly portrayed are the people and industries currently dependent on both the managed river and massive government subsidies: the nuclear industry, commercial barge traffic and desert farmers irrigating with the river's water. Harden provides a sensitive and thoughtful examination of a complex situation.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 37034th edition (November 17, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393316904
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393316902
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #495,527 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on December 19, 1998
Format: Paperback
Although the author probably is personally opposed to the dams on the Columbia, his vivid and respectful profiles of the different users of the river (the slackwater barge operator, the Indian tribe that lost its source of food when the river was dammed, the irrigation farmer, the windsurfing yuppie, the father and son who work on the Hanford cleanup) make us understand that no matter how this tricky issue is resolved, there will be a human cost. His recollection of growing up in Moses Lake, a town which owes its prosperity to the dams, adds even more credibility to his account.
Harden's device of telling the story in stages, as a trip down the river, is unobtrusive and keeps things interesting. This book will make you think and it will also treat you to some gorgeous descriptions of the Columbia.
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A River Lost is about much more that just a book about the making of the Columbia River into a barge friendly irrigation system. Harden weaves autobiography, tales of everyday life, unchecked government power, the dynamic tension between the urban and rural in the Pacific Northwest. The book reveals the how the River washes over and changes, some would say corrodes, everything it touches. The heart of the book is more the river as it describes the unintended consequences that flows from good intentions and how affluence changes the political landscape from a focus on jobs to concern about the quality of life. The book should be read not as a conclusive picture of what has happened to the Columbia but as a starting point for further exploration.

The book has two weaknesses. The first is that it ignores the changes brought in the region's ecosystem when the salmon runs ceased in the upper Columbia. Millions of pounds of salmon were food not just for the Indians but for a variety of wildlife. A few words about what those changes have meant to the region's biota would have helped the reader to understand that far more than Indians were affected. The second weakness is when Harden brings contemporary politics into a tale of written with a historic perspective. Harden pointedly blames Republicans for stopping what he sees as beneficial change but puts no emphasis on how Democrats designed, sold and implemented the dams and irrigation as an beneficial scheme of social engineering. The book would have been stronger had that part been omitted. Neither party can claim to be on the side of the Gods when it comes to the Columbia.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
One summer I worked for my uncle at the Portland General Electric Power distribution as meter reader. Another summer I worked for Bonneville Power (Department of Interior) as electrical engineer trainee. We went on per diem on a tour of the columbia dam system all the way up to the Grend Coulee. The Chief Joseph Dam was 1/3 completed as well as the Dalles Dam. We saw the fish ladders working. In 1964 my own sister worked for Pacific Power (now Pacific Corp. She worked up to Excecutive Secretary of the Board before retiring.So we had both the Private and Public Power covered about power generation on the Columbia. Also my older brother worked for the Corps of Enginners on a study about automatic operation of Dam Sites. My twin brother also worked for Bonneville the two summers that I did.
Of course I know more of the secrets of how the river was degraded. I worked in Power Wheeling in the Northwest Power Pool at BP. We did forward looking.studies to predict future loads to supply enough HP 230KV lines. Also a NW-SW DC 300KV was under construction to inter-tie Pacific General Electric in California to our area. I turned 21YR while powering up a small substation on the southern Oregon coast. I had my first beer to celebrate. 71YR Dave One such secret was how the Grand Coulee was created. A geologist posed a solution of how it was the result of ice dams is Montana of multiple times and how the Eractics were moved.(in the Twenties). It wasn't accepted untill mid-century. My older brother still doesen't believe it but he was not a Power Engineer as I. The wave action of a flow in giant scale proved the answer to the strang little hills ant the gorge itself. The author may also know this-or not. Buy the buck to find out.
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The Columbia I thought was familiar to me from many years of visiting a daughter in Astoria OR is presented here in a plethora of viewpoints. . The report here is mostly about Washington state but it fills in history presented through a series of interviews. Colorful and dynamic persons illustrate the various views of reasons for the building of dams, lack of respect for wildlife and native American cultures, environmental movements, and dealing with consequences of nuclear plants' waste. The complex and antagonistic viewpoints can kind of be understood each one separate, but the author does not really integrate all he presents with any solid suggestions or conclusions. Perhaps it is his reluctance to 'take sides'. And maybe his intention was to get US to think of those next steps. Since my Oregon daughter is a research scientist for NOAA in Astoria, I hear about many things at the mouth of the Columbia, and I was glad to have this book detail history and activity further upstream.
Contrary to my expectations, this journalist published extensive notes and noted sources very well- making his presentation very solid to this retired professor.
Anyone interested in water should read this cautionary tale and those making national decisions should read it more than once!
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