Voyage to the Pacific
Part 6- Paddling a Desert River
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Downstream from Grand Coulee Dam, the Columbia began a wide, 10-day western bend - in the shape of a ragged letter C - across the center of the state of Washington. They came to Chief Joseph Dam. People at the dams, Leslie noticed, liked to tell visitors how many cities the size of Seattle their dam could power.

"So which of these dams does send electricity to Seattle?" Leslie asked LaFont. run-of-river dams

LaFont explained how the government built, and runs, the main grid. Over the grid, BPA sells big blocks of electricity to utilities. "Who delivers the electricity to your house in Seattle?" he asked. "Do you know?"

"Seattle City Light."

"OK,'' he said. "That's your utility. The utility has some dams and power plants of its own. But it also buys electricity over the main grid. Think of the government's grid as the main river of electricity," he said. "If the main grid is the river, the utility is the stream. The power lines going down the street to your house are the creeks. If you drew a map of electricity branching out from the grid to people, it would look like our river map of blue broccoli."

"In reverse," she said. BPA lines carry electricity to NW cities

"Green broccoli."

The Okanogan River joined the Columbia below Chief Joseph Dam. Then came a series of five dams - Wells, Rocky Reach, Rock Island, Wanapum and Priest Rapids. These dams were lower than the kind they had passed.

"They call these 'run-of-river' dams," said LaFont. "As opposed to storage dams. Their main job is to generate power as the water goes by."

Another thing different about these five dams, he explained, is they weren't built by the government. Utilities built them. Rock Island dam was the very first dam on the Columbia, built in 1933.

"People formed their own utilities. They built dams. Now they own them," he said. "They charge their members what it costs for electricity. And it's not much. Some of the lowest electric bills in the whole world are right here. If the utility has power left over - and it usually does –" he said, "it might send power over the government lines. They sell it on the other side of the Cascades, where there're more people." Hatcheries help replace fish runs lost to upstream dams

At Wells Dam, there was a hatchery and a twisting artificial stream where salmon and steelhead could return to spawn. Some returning fish went up a fish ladder toward the Okanogan and Methow Rivers. Others spawned here in the spawning channel. The young would be raised at the hatchery and released upstream. On the river, Leslie noticed more eagles than she had seen recently. Fishermen lined the banks in wait for summer steelhead.

As they paddled on, flat green benches of farmland flanked the river. Neat rows of apple trees criss-crossed in orchards around the busy city of Wenatchee. Pumps at shoreline pulled water from reservoirs to irrigate the orchards.

"Wouldn't the voyageurs be surprised," said LaFont, crunching a Washington apple, "to see the changes in this dry place."

Northwest winds pushed them along the river's C through central Washington. Below Priest Rapids Dam, they came to - surprise! - a free-flowing stretch of the Columbia. Not since the Canadian border had they seen more than an hour at a time of live current. Now the river picked up their canoe and hurried it along for one whole day. They stopped at an island for lunch. Leslie wondered why this part of the river wasn't dammed.

"There was a dam on the drawing boards," said LaFont. "But Congress passed a law to prevent damming or dredging this stretch."

One reason, he explained, is fish. Gravelly islets around Vernita Bar are the last place salmon can spawn in the main Columbia River. They lay their eggs in shallow nests, or redds, in swift-flowing water that has lots of oxygen. Reservoirs don't work for spawning. salmon spawn in channels by Wells Dam

"Even though the river looks natural, here," he said, "it's regulated for fish. Every year the river coordinators send enough water from storage dams like Mica and Hungry Horse to cover the redds until the fish eggs hatch. And they send extra water down the river from mid-April to mid-June," he said. "That helps young salmon and steelhead make their way out to sea."

Beyond Vernita Bridge, they saw no roads. No towns. On the bank were large factory-looking buildings with dead smoke stacks. The bank was posted with No Trespassing signs.

"Plutonium reactors," said LaFont. "They're not running anymore. This is Hanford, where the U.S. brewed plutonium for the first atom bombs, like the one dropped on Nagasaki."

Only the abandoned shell of a high school was left of the town of Hanford. "I knew a guy who lived here in World War lI," said LaFont. "They shipped in construction workers. My friend didn't know what he was building, and he swears nobody else did. Not until the bomb was dropped in 1945 were Hanford workers told what they'd been doing. They had changed the course of history." the WNP-2 plant adds to power system

The river hurried to the left of a bald island. It cut into cliffs of white sandstone. Great flocks of geese and ducks fanned into the sky. On the sandy shore, a coyote loped along the bank.

"The nuclear plant that is working," LaFont said, "has nothing to do with plutonium or bombs. You can't see it from here, but there's a nuclear power plant just over the rise." He pointed off to the right. "Actually there are two of them, but only one has been
finished. It's been working since 1984."
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