Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tom O'Keefe from American Whitewater

When Lewis and Clark descended the lower Snake River corridor they encountered a landscape of canyon lands, deep draws, beaches, river islands and rapids. The lower Snake here is a big river. It is the largest tributary to the Columbia swelling to 180,000 cubic feet per second in a high water year, and its rapids and whirlpools were feared and respected as hazards to be negotiated with care and attention. Many of the rapids were later named for people or features in the landscape. Names like Log Cabin Rapids, Little Pine Tree Rapids and Haunted House Rapids were common.

A shot of the Lower Snake River before the construction of Lower Granite Dam in 1969. Courtesy of the University of Idaho, Special Collections, Kyle Laughlin Collection.

However, with the completion of Lower Granite Dam in 1975 over fifty rapids fell silent under the still waters of the reservoirs. These went missing along with numerous river islands, beaches, river bars and riparian forests so familiar to the large rivers of the Columbia Basin and the inter-mountain west.

Lower Granite Dam. Northwest Discovery Water Trail

A shot of the Lower Snake River before construction of Lower Monumental Dam in 1969.
Courtesy of the University of Idaho, Special Collections, Kyle Laughlin Collection.

Today a healthy discussion is taking place that reconsiders the values that these rivers, their rapids and boat-able corridors that they provide. This discussion warrants a healthy, clear-eyed look at the real values of rivers and what they bring to the citizens of Washington State in the way of long term, durable recreation benefits and quality of life. This is especially important as more people seek out places where they can enjoy clean, flowing rivers and the sporting experiences they provide.

The lower Snake is just such a place that needs a careful re-examination of the values it delivers to Washington residents, and its potential to deliver much more than it currently does. To river runners, this corridor could provide an amazing “big river” experience that is currently very hard to find in America let alone the Northwest. Dispersed campgrounds and developed facilities that allow river access, put-ins, take outs and the potential for a major contiguous, uninterrupted float from Hells Canyon to the mouth of the Columbia River. Currently the river is segmented and non-motorized boaters must portage around four large dams as they are discouraged from “locking through”.

Photo of a little used, lonely portage site on LSR reservoir.
Courtesy of Northwest Discovery Water Trail
As society examines the investments of an earlier age and necessarily questions the values that each dam brings us, it is easy to see the free flowing lower Snake River corridor as an amazing resource both economically and socially for Washington State. I encourage you to join the dialogue and debate about the enormous potential that this river might once again bring to boaters and citizens of all stripes across Washington State and the west. The time is right to become involved.

Thomas O’Keefe is the Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director for American Whitewater

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