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

By (author) Blaine Harden

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After a two-decade absence, Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden returned to his small-town birthplace in the Pacific Northwest to follow the rise and fall of the West's most thoroughly conquered river. Harden's hometown, Moses Lake, Washington, could not have existed without massive irrigation schemes. His father, a Depression migrant trained as a welder, helped build dams and later worked at the secret Hanford plutonium plant. Now he and his neighbors, once considered patriots, stand accused of killing the river. As Blaine Harden traveled the Columbia-by barge, car, and sometimes on foot-his past seemed both foreign and familiar. A personal narrative of rediscovery joined a narrative of exploitation: of Native Americans, of endangered salmon, of nuclear waste, and of a once-wild river now tamed to puddled remains. Part history, part memoir, part lament, "this is a brave and precise book," according to the New York Times Book Review. "It must not have been easy for Blaine Harden to find himself turning his journalistic weapons against his own heritage, but he has done the conscience of his homeland a great service."

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  • Paperback | 272 pages
  • 137.16 x 226.06 x 20.32mm | 226.8g
  • 04 Mar 1998
  • WW Norton & Co
  • New York
  • English
  • 0393316904
  • 9780393316902

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Author Information

Blaine Harden, an award-winning journalist, is a contributor to The Economist and a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

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Review quote

"Harden's bold and well-supported commentary is a welcome addition to the literature of the majestic river."

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Review text

Joining the recent stream of books on the Columbia River is this hard-hitting report on the policies that have governed this most engineered of all American rivers. As the son of a worker who helped build the Grand Coulee Dam and later worked at the Hanford nuclear site, Washington Post correspondent Harden (Africa, 1990) easily elicits candid opinions from the bargemen, farmers, and nuclear engineers who owe their prosperity to the federal government for erecting dams and supplying cheap, subsidized irrigation water and electricity. The "managed oasis life" came at great cost to the wild salmon of the river and to the Native Americans who based their culture on the Chinook and other species that were all but eradicated by the behemoth dams along the Columbia-Snake river system. Harden's informants on the dry, eastern side of Washington's Cascade Range invariably castigate environmentalists and city dwellers on the western side for their support of reservoir "drawdowns," which would help speed migrating salmon to the ocean but bring seasonal halts to navigation and lowered electrical generation. Harden talks to former engineers who worked at Hanford building the atomic bomb, now consultants in a massive, costly clean-up effort at the plant, who minimize the consequences to the land and its residents who lived downwind. While respectful of the hardworking farmers he interviews, Harden lacks sympathy with their complaints against impending government policies that would alter their subsidized lifestyle. He labels their faith in the Columbia River Project "irrigation theology": "The orthodoxy of the Project teaches that subsidies are freedom, salmon are frivolous, Indians are suspect, and rivers are fuel for sprinklers." Until the ascendancy of the Republican Congress, the river seemed about to benefit from Clinton administration policies that would once more permit an annual salmon migration. Although much of the story has already been written elsewhere, Harden's bold and well-supported commentary is a welcome addition to the literature of this majestic river. (Kirkus Reviews)

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