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Noxon Rapids Dam Noxon Rapids Dam

Awful power - the real and squandered wealth of the Northwest

These dark mornings should remind all of us what an awe-inspiring Gift from the Gods cheap electricity is. We flip on the lights, grind the beans, run the water, start the coffee maker, flush the toilet, turn on the computer and radio– all for pennies. We unthinkingly use this godlike power with no respect for the real cost.

Growing up in the optimistic ‘50s, I never questioned the assumption that humans had the right and the knowledge to control nature. If I thought at all about dams and fish ladders, it would have been as a win/win situation. This attitude changed in 1971 when we first followed the Kootenai River north from Libby. The dam had been completed, but the river had not yet drowned the lovely mountain valley, lush with side streams, that stretched to Canada. From amount of sawn down fruit trees, piles of house lumber and driveways, this valley had once held a fair population. Tended yards, hayfields, barnyards, small towns were doomed to a watery death.

Two reasons were given for building the dam: Electricity for the aluminum plant in Spokane and flood control for Bonners Ferry. Today, when we drive around ‘Lake’ Koocanusa, we seldom see a boat on the grey, still water, but if there is one, it will always be aluminum. Seems a high price to pay, and it also seems that it would have been more reasonable to move the lower section of Bonners Ferry to the bluffs above.

I am so glad I did not see the lower Clark Fork valley before Noxon Rapids and Cabinet Gorge Dams were built. Most people who lived here before dam building have mixed feelings. The expanse of water has physically opened the landscape, one lady told me. Another said, “We had no idea how extensive the flooding would be.”

“People accepted it easily,” one fellow told me. “They thought they would make money supplying the dam builders with lunches.”

“We thought the fish ladders would work, but then they didn’t even put a ladder in.”

“If it weren’t for the dam, our well would be dry in the summer.”

“The dam building did bring some short-term prosperity and got us better schools.”

“Oh, I miss snagging trout at the rapids. I remember big washtubs full of fish.”

“How could anyone have believed that a fish ladder was as good as a free river.”

Avista has done an admirable job with relicensing as required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but they blew off one powerful suggestion: set up a savings account to pay for dam removal fifty years from now when relicensing rolls around again.

Our autumn salmon run to Seattle always rams home the awareness of the real and squandered wealth of the Northwest. Salmon were once this regions’ gold, but to secure cheap energy, we ruined their rivers and now squander the power to keep huge cities alight as Christmas trees.

At the Interstate rest stop close to Moses Lake, I noticed a well-dressed, elegantly-coiffed 80 something-year-old woman step out of Lincoln Town car. The car had British Columbia plates, and I thought the woman really looked like British royalty. She stared at our 1971 VW bus with a half smile on her face. “Our old workhorse is working again” I said,” bringing a half ton of salmon back to Montana.”

“Salmon. Oh you are so lucky! We live in Vancouver, but we couldn’t get any salmon this year. “

Her expression was so sincere, I was briefly tempted to open a box and give her a couple of filets. “It is such a loss not to have good salmon runs,” she continued.

Gesturing to the ten-foot-tall corn growing across the highway, I said I respected agriculture, but wondered if such a water-needy crop should be grown in arid central Washington. She replied that it was field corn, grown to fatten cattle in feed lots. “All that energy to produce protein,” I ventured.

We could have been dancing; the elegant lady, not missing a beat, spoke, “And the salmon just came to us, delivered themselves to us.” Turning to me she added, mournfully, “All we had to do was to take care of the rivers.”

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Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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