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Just south of the Canada-U.S. border, the Columbia River became Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake - the reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam. A day of paddling brought LaFont and Leslie floating eerily over Kettle Falls.
"Used to be," said LaFont, "Kettle Falls was a drop in the river. The water rushed between narrow cliffs and down over rock steps. Like Celilo, further downstream," he said. "Even the voyageurs had to portage Kettle Falls." The falls, he explained, were a famous Indian fishing place. "Indians used spears, pole nets, and wicker fish traps" he said, "to catch salmon as they leaped the falls."
Now there was only a narrowing of the lake and a bridge where the falls had been. Sailboats raced across the water.
"Welcome to Kettle Falls Regatta," said a woman in a rowboat. They beached the canoe and joined the crowd. A grassy viewing area with pine trees was separated from lake level by a strip of raw sandy shoreline.
In a line at a taco stand, Leslie overheard grumbling about the water level. "You'd think they could have brought the water up for the regatta," a man told his wife.
"The water is up," said another man. "The lake's higher than it's been for three summers. They never give us enough water anymore."
Leslie brought tacos and pop back to LaFont. She asked why they hadn't brought the water up. "They, who?" she asked. Who runs it?"
"Well, you'd need a bigger story than I can tell," he said. "But basically it's your government. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation built, and now run, the government dams. BPA - Bonneville Power Administration - sells the power from those dams. You got your fish agencies and Indian tribes and a whole alphabet soup of groups, private and government, that have a stake in the river."
There isn't one owner that coordinates the whole system, he explained. But the different parties get together and run the system as if there were.
Computerized control centers, he explained, set reservoir levels for flood control. Forecasters and planners also spread water around for fish, irrigation, navigation and recreation - like the Kettle Falls Regatta. Then the power guys try to predict how much power is going to be used. That's balanced with what can be churned out at dams up and down the river. All these things influence reservoir levels.
"They play the whole river like an organ," said LaFont. "The dams are the organ stops. And not everybody thinks they always hit the right chords. Some years," he said, "there's not enough water to make everybody happy. You get a few dry years, like we've had," he said, "and river gets stretched mighty thin."
On the banks of Roosevelt Lake, pine trees gave way to junipers and sage. "We're gettin' into the dry country," said LaFont.
The sun beat down so hard that Leslie had to wear a long-sleeved shirt for protection. White salt-lines formed around the edges of LaFont's red bandana. The water, too, warmed enough for good swimming.
For all the work it did, Leslie noticed, the river at Roosevelt Lake was also a playground. Marinas and boat ramps hummed with fishermen, waterskiers, sailers. Well into July, now, the reservoir had filled, bringing the water line closer to the campgrounds on its banks. Houseboats were scattered in coves and quiet inlets along the vast shoreline.
Whenever the lake bulged and widened, Leslie looked for Grand Coulee Dam. But Roosevelt Lake just kept going. Now they were paddling west. The banks showed layers of lava from volcanic eruptions. Gravel beaches had been left behind by receding glaciers.
Grand Coulee Dam finally came into view. A concrete wall nearly a mile wide crossed the lake. They beached the canoe at a cove. Above the cove perched the town of Grand Coulee. "This is where I used to live," said LaFont, "when I was your age."
Street names were the same, although the pre-fab housing he had lived in was long gone. E Street, D Street. "This town grew so fast nobody had time to name things," he said. "Seven thousand men worked for eight years, starting in 1933," he said. "B Street, here, had the saloons and dance halls. It was off limits to us kids. But you could hear it all night long."
They hiked up a knobby hill. From the top, LaFont and Leslie had a panoramic view of the mammoth dam. "My papa was as proud of this dam as if he'd built it all himself," said LaFont. "For 7,000 years," he said, "the Great Pyramid at Giza was the world's largest structure. Grand Coulee Dam is three times its size."
Looking south, Leslie saw an ancient river bed lying at right angles to the Columbia. It seemed to have nothing to do with the current course of the river.
"This is the grand coulee," said LaFont. "Coulee is French for river valley, or ravine. Back in the Ice Age," he said, "a big glacier dammed the river gorge. That made the river cut this new coulee. When the glacier melted," he said, "the river went back to its original bed, where it is now."
In the coulee's bed was another reservoir. "The world's largest pumps," said LaFont, "push water from Roosevelt Lake up these pipes. From here the water goes into Banks Lake, in the coulee. And from there," he said, "it goes another 50 miles through tunnels and siphons and canals to the farm country."
Over the horizon, down around Ephrata, was where LaFont's papa had failed at dryland potato farming. "The soil was good," he said. "All we needed was water. Some years we had enough rain. Other years - sometimes three, four years in a row - we didn't."
"Water is life," said LaFont, scratching his beard. "And Grand Coulee Dam spreads it around. Potatoes, sugar beets, wheat, vegetables... The water makes the brown land green. Without Grand Coulee Dam, you wouldn't have big towns like Moses Lake, Ephrata, Othello. Lots of people," he said, "lots of life."
A big commercial jet curved toward an airport in the direction they were looking. "Who pays for all this?" Leslie asked. "The farmers?"
"Farmers pay some," he said, "but not all it costs. The money people pay for electricity from the federal dams covers most of the cost of irrigation up here. That's the beauty of it, Les," he said. "The river pays for it."
The hike up the hill had taken its toll on Leslie's canoe-dead legs. By the time she and LaFont walked down to Grand Coulee Dam, her legs were rubbery. With her back to Roosevelt Lake, Leslie peeked over the railing into the chasm of the Columbia River, 350 feet down.
The dam, wedged between cliffs, had been enlarged to add a new power plant since LaFont had last seen it. Now it lay across the river in the shape of a hockey stick, to use more of Lake Roosevelt's stored water for power.
"Used to be," he said, "great flows hurtled over this spillway. Didn't do anybody much good. Now that we have storage reservoirs and the new power plant," he said, "that doesn't happen. The river can do more work."
They joined a tour group headed toward the right side of the dam. They saw generators that had been in place since Grand Coulee Dam was finished. Leslie didn't think she'd ever seen machinery so big.
Size, however, is relative. The next part of the tour took them to the new power plant. Here she saw generators twice as large, each producing five times as much power as Grand Coulee Dam's original generators. When all the turbines hum to capacity, this single dam generates enough electric power to run six Seattles.
"You know, people ask an awful lot of this old river," said LaFont. "We stopped floods. We evened out the flow to spread the power around. We made the desert bloom. And people will be asking even more of the river," he said. "When Congress set up Grand Coulee," the old man said, "they authorized a million acres of irrigation. Only half that land's been watered. Now there is talk of irrigating more."
"Is it going to happen?" Leslie asked.
''I don't know," he said. "Maybe a little bit at a time. People these days are more aware of the river's limits, too."