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Dams are the Northwest's Flood Busters

by Don C. Brunell
The Courier-Herald, January 20, 2020

Removing dams is a pricey project, and would likely encourage flooding in Washington.

President Harry S. Truman, surrounded by reporters, stands on the bank of the Columbia River while an unidentified officer points out the flood disaster at Vanport, Oregon (date: June 11, 1948). The photos were taken during President Truman's trip to the West Coast. (Naval Photo Center) A year ago, much of America's heartland was inundated by Missouri River flood waters. At least 1 million acres of U.S. farmland in nine major grain producing states were under water. More than 14 million people were impacted. Damage exceeded $1 billion.

With 11 dams on the Missouri, why was the flooding so severe? Why didn't the dams absorb the excess waters?

Its dams are above the flooded areas. The last impoundment is at Gavins Point Dams in South Dakota and heavy rainfall and snow melts were downstream in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri.

Complicating the situation was the Missouri River managers were forced to release water because reservoirs were at capacity due to heavy snow in Montana's Rockies.

Our network of dams in the Pacific Northwest is more extensive. There are 60 in the Columbia River watershed. Without that network, we'd be in the same fix.

It wasn't always that way.

For example, on May 30, 1948, a levee on the flood-swollen Columbia River ruptured and within a few hours a 10-foot high wall of water reduced Vanport, now North Portland, to a shattered, muddy ruin. Sixteen people died and Vanport -- at the time, Oregon's second largest city -- disappeared forever.

President Harry Truman flew west to see the water-logged mess. Speaking to an audience in Portland, Truman said the flooding could have been averted if the string of dams along the Columbia, Snake and Willamette rivers were in place. He scolded Congress and told them to get off the dime and fund the Bureau of Reclamation to complete its flood control projects.

(bluefish notes: Mr. Brunell has not been able to support his contention that the Snake River was mentioned by President Truman while visiting the Vanport Flood sites and subsequent speeches in Oregon. Mr. Brunell did, however, locate reference to the Willamette River, included below)

Over the next 20 years, the McNary, Dalles and John Day dams were constructed on the lower Columbia and Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams were built on the lower Snake. They added flood control capacity, generated much-needed hydropower, and established a 465-mile water transportation network from the Pacific Ocean to Clarkston.

Other dams along the west side of the Cascades were constructed. They have added water storage capacity. For example, Mossyrock Dam, built in 1968 on the Cowlitz River, has a 23-mile storage reservoir absorbing runoff and heavy rains from the south side of Mt. Rainier.

Meanwhile, undammed rivers, such as the Chehalis and Snoqualmie, often flood and drive people out of their homes, force livestock to higher ground, and close roads.

Too often during discussions over dam removal, particularly on lower Snake and Columbia rivers, important aspects such as flood control, barging and irrigation are minimize. The main focus centers on hydropower and fish.

Gov. Jay Inslee, who supports breaching of the lower Snake River dams, added $750,000 to last year's state budget to take stakeholder input on breaching the four dams. That discussion must be inclusive and comprehensive.

A study commissioned by the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association found that removal of barging from the lower Snake would cost $4 billion over 30 years.

The Columbia-Snake River system is the top wheat export gateway in the nation and it would take 135,000 semi-trucks and 35,140 rail cars to move the cargo currently barged on the Snake River alone in a year. Breaching the dams would cause diesel consumption to increase by 5 million gallons a year and increase CO2 emissions by 1.2 million tons a year.

Northwest electric ratepayers have spent billions to improve salmon and steelhead fish runs over last 25 years with some success. Meanwhile, over fishing, ocean conditions and predators such as California Sea Lions and Cormorants are devastating our runs.

The problem is complex and not just simply one between dams and fish. We need to remember that network of "flood busters" is saving our bacon.

"...that the present salmon run must be sacrificed."
-- Assistant Secretary of Interior, Warner W. Gardner March 6, 1947

From Harry S. Truman LIbrary & Museum
Rear Platform and Other Informal Remarks in Oregon, June 11, 1948

[2.] SALEM, OREGON (Rear platform, 4:30 p.m.)

You know, I never had a nicer, more appreciated introduction. I have known the Governor for a long time. He is my kind of a Democrat. He knows how this public power fight started out here. He knows what we had to go through with to get Grand Coulee and Bonneville, and we still shall have a fight to get the rest of the dams on the Columbia River that we ought to have, in order to make the Columbia River produce as much power as all the private power companies in the United States now produce. Did you know that?

The Columbia River has a potential of 50 million kilowatts of power. That is all the private companies produce now.

I am so glad that the Governor came down. I hoped he would. I have known him a long time, almost ever since I have been in politics. He was far and away my senior in the Congress, and as Governor of his State I am glad to come back here and rank him just this one time.

I landed here this morning. I flew here from Olympia, McChord Field at Fort Lewis, and I had hoped to be able to look at the Columbia River floods, but you had one of your early morning mists, and I couldn't see it. As I went through this town, I saw what I thought were all the people in Oregon, but here they are--I was mistaken. As I went along the roads from here to Portland, in order to see the flood damage in that city, it seemed that everybody in every town was out to greet the President.

Now I understand very well that that greeting is to the Chief Executive of the greatest Nation on earth, and is not to Harry Truman as a private citizen.

Voice: It is, too!

You have to be very careful always to keep that in mind when you are President of the United States, because if you don't keep that in mind, you will get a bad case of "Potomac fever," and then you are ruined. You know, Woodrow Wilson said that a great many men came to Washington and grew up with their jobs, and a very large number came and just swelled up. I am trying awful hard to keep that swelling down. My hat hasn't increased a single eighth of an inch since I have been President of the United States.

I am interested in flood control as well as power and navigation and reclamation in this part of the world. I understand that your Willamette River is due to go on a rampage. Well, its rampage can be controlled. All you need to do to control it is to control the tributaries. The Columbia River requires about 15 million acre-feet of storage to prevent such a flood as they are having now. The Missouri River and the Ohio River and the Connecticut River in New England have the same sort of floods, and the same sort of control would take care of those floods in every one of those valleys.

Since I have been in politics--and I hate to tell you how long that has been--I have been interested in flood control, because the old Missouri--when the old Missouri goes on a rampage, it goes on a rampage! The year before last, if my memory is correct, the Missouri wiped out 500 million dollars' worth of crops. And that happens once every 4 years on the average.

Now you haven't had a flood on the Columbia River in this region since 1894 that was worthy of the name. I am sorry to say that sometimes disasters have their good points, and this one undoubtedly will make this part of the country flood-conscious, and you will sympathize with the Ohio and the Missouri and the Connecticut, as they sympathize with you now, because they know what you are going through.

And when we have that sort of a situation, we have the country working together as a whole--as a unit.

This is the greatest Nation on earth, I think. The greatest Nation in history, let's put it that way. We have done things that no other nation in the history of the world has done. We fought two wars in one generation for liberty and the right of the individual, and we have taken a part of the territory of a nation, with whom we went to war, and whom we defeated, and made a nation out of that territory. That never happened before in the history of the world. No nation ever gave back any territory it ever took.

We made a republic out of Cuba, we made a republic out of the Philippines, and we are giving Puerto Rico self-government.

All we ask in this world is peace, for the welfare of all the people in the world.

If we want it badly enough, and if we go along with the program which has been outlined as the foreign policy of the United States, we will get that peace, and it will last, I hope, indefinitely, or maybe a thousand years. There is plenty of room in all the world for everybody. The resources of this great Northwest would support 4 or 5 times the number of people that are in it now, if it was properly developed.

That is what I want to see done all over the whole world. Then we can live together as neighbors.

I have talked to you too much and on too many subjects. You have been very kind. You are very hospitable, and I wish we could stay longer, but I have a schedule that was made for me in Washington, and I have to keep it, so we have to go.

Don C. Brunellis a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state's oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver.
Dams are the Northwest's Flood Busters
The Courier-Herald, January 20, 2020

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