The Myth of Hydropower. How “Green” energy is destroying the Columbia River watershed. Part I.

The word “Greenwashing” has been around since the mid-1980s, but the concept itself is much older. At it’s core, greenwashing is a marketing tool, a means of disguising and repackaging ecocide to make it more palatable for the consumer. As this culture grew (and continues to grow), the carnage wrought on the natural world began to become impossible to ignore. You can only pretend for so long, eventually you run out of closets in which to hide your skeletons (or in this case, toxic groundwater, melting icecaps, disappearing forests, etc, etc, etc). Any sane individual would look at these rapidly worsening problems and attempt to take corrective action in order to stop them, but of course, we’re not talking about sane individuals here. We’re talking about psychopaths. The admen and corporations saw these consequences firsthand, saw the destruction, and realized that all of this was a terrific opportunity for profit. By preying upon the consumers desire to “do something”, without actually doing anything, these companies began to label their products and practices as “environmentally friendly”, all the while continuing their war on the natural world without breaking a stride.  They made minimal changes in the way they made their products, but they made major changes in the way they marketed them. And made a shit ton of money in the process.

Greenwashing has been written about considerably by people much smarter than myself, so I don’t want to talk extensively about the general concept of it. It’s an easy enough idea to understand. Unsustainable and ecologically destructive behaviors, products, and practices being incorrectly labeled as “environmentally friendly” for the sake of profit and exploitation. What I do want to discuss, however, is how this practice is being used to facilitate the murder of my backyard, the Columbia River watershed.

Sprawling over most of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho (and small parts of several other states), the Columbia Basin totals about 250,000 square miles in area. To give you an idea of the scale we’re talking about, it’s main river and her tributaries contribute more water to the Pacific Ocean than any other river in North or South America. When Lewis and Clark arrived here in 1805, they were awestruck by the diversity and mind-boggling size of the region (although this didn’t stop them and those they later brought from exploiting the shit out of it). They estimated the Columbia Basin to be comprised of about 13,000 miles of undisturbed river habitat, and claimed “The multitudes of fish are almost inconceivable”.

To say that the Columbia River watershed plays an important role in the health of the Pacific Northwest is like saying that gravity plays an important role in skydiving. The watershed doesn’t just contribute to the local ecosystem, it literally is the local ecosystem.

Human and non-human lifeforms managed to coexist along the banks of the Columbia river for more than 10,000 years, but in the last two centuries, an abominably evil culture hell-bent on destroying everything in it’s path has brought this once pristine habitat to the brink of complete annihilation. The reasons for this are not complex, they aren’t “multi-faceted”, as some would have us believe, they are simple and readily apparent to anybody willing to look behind the curtain. When Lewis and Clark first came here, yes they were awestruck. They were speechless. They were completely taken aback…but not by the grandeur of the towering doug-firs, or the hordes of surging salmon. No, they were taken aback by the dazzling, almost incomprehensible potential for profit that they saw. They readily said as much in their journals. They observed an easily exploitable landbase the likes of which had never been seen before by old world eyes.

Exploring the various, horrific ways in which this ecosystem has been systemically destroyed would take many, many thousands of pages, so I’ll just concentrate on one. Dams.

The above is a map of prominent dams on the Columbia river and it’s tributaries. As you can see, the number is staggering, they’re everywhere. These aren’t small, six foot tall dams either, these are massive, hulking, monoliths, many are hundreds of feet tall. I’ve personally seen two of the larger ones (the Bonneville dam and the Grand Coulee Dam), and I can testify that they don’t just impose on the landscape, they absolutely dominate it. Everything about the presence and look of a dam screams domination, they may as well just paint that word in blood on the side of them. Unfortunately, they are just as destructive as they are ugly. The aesthetics of a gigantic block of cement choking the life out of a river is the last thing we should be worrying about though, so lets concentrate on the raw, real, unavoidable carnage caused by these concrete weapons. Let’s dispense with the flowery language and simply call them what they are; weapons of mass destruction.

The Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River.

To be able to understand why dams are so destructive, we need to first understand the basic mechanics of the dam itself. The Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us that a dam is, “a barrier preventing the flow of water or of loose solid materials (as soil or snow); especially : a barrier built across a watercourse for impounding water”. Okay, so we know what the structure looks like now, and that it’s purpose is to hold back a body of water, but building a dam on the scale of the Grand Coulee sounds like a helluva lot of work, what perceived benefit is this thing supposed to give us? A little research tells me that the vast majority of large dams are built for the purpose of harvesting hydropower and “collecting water or for storage of water which can be evenly distributed between locations”.

Electrical power and irrigation essentially.

We can obtain energy and irrigate crops without having to burn fossil fuels? That kicks ass right?

Awesome, I’m excited we’ve found a clean source of energy that doesn’t harm the already fragile ecosystem. I’m going to go ask the salmon and whats left of the old growth forest how much this is kicking ass…

*Goes down to the Bonneville dam to distribute high fives amongst the fish and trees. I’m already thinking about hanging my own “mission accomplished” banner behind me as I explain how well this “green” energy thing has worked.*

Hunh. Weird. So I’m down here at the dam, but I can’t find any old growth forest to talk to, there are a few Salmon around, but nowhere near the numbers I heard Lewis and Clark bragging about. The Salmon that I do find don’t seem to want to talk to me about “progress”, they just roll their eyes and go back to futilely throwing their bodies against the dam. This isn’t really what I was expecting, I’m beginning to think that maybe those who told me that dams were safe and sustainable were bending the truth a bit. Actually, maybe…just maybe.

Those fuckers were lying.

to be continued…

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