cover image A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia

A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia

Blaine Harden. W. W. Norton & Company, $25 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-393-03936-8

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. (May)