A River ‘Goin’ to Waste’
Little attention was given to environmental issues in the late 1920s and early 1930s when the Army Corps of Engineers began developing a master plan for the Columbia River. House Document 308, adopted by Congress in 1925, directed the Corps to develop a master plan for the hydraulic development of the Columbia River Basin. The resulting “308 Report” -- released in 1932 under the title The Columbia River and Minor Tributaries -- recommended the construction of 10 major dams on the main stem of the river as an initial step. What became McNary Dam was third on the list, after Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams.
The report emphasized the economic benefits of the proposed dams. Chief among these was improved navigation, followed by flood control, hydropower, and storage of water for irrigation. The report made only one brief reference to fish. It noted that “provision for the passage of fish over the dams” would “require more definite determination,” adding that the salmon fishing industry was economically important in Washington and Oregon and “should not be endangered” (20).
The engineers and planners who produced the 308 Report reflected the attitudes of the times. To most Americans, the question was not whether dams should be built, but by whom: public or private interests. Politicians in the Northwest were united in pushing the federal government to dam the Columbia, arguing that the dams would bring more people to a sparsely populated region, provide jobs, and spur economic growth.
Dams also had emotional appeal, as symbols of the triumph of technology over nature. The undammed Columbia was “a river just a-goin’ to waste,” as folksinger Woody Guthrie (1921-1967) put it in “Talking Columbia” -- one of the 26 songs he wrote for the Bonneville Power Administration in 1941. Its power should be put to use, he argued, “Turnin’ out everything from fertilizers to sewing machines.” As for the salmon: “Them salmon fish is mighty shrewd/They got senators and politicians, too.” They could fend for themselves.
Plugging the River
Congress implemented the first stage of the master plan for the development of the Columbia in 1933, authorizing the construction of dams at Bonneville, about 140 miles from the mouth of the river at the Pacific Ocean; and Grand Coulee, in northeastern Washington.
Neither dam was originally designed to include passages for anadromous fish (those that hatch in river beds, spend their adult lives in the ocean, and then migrate back to their home waters to spawn). “The truth is, the Government wasn’t thinking much about fish in those days,” a retired engineer for the Army Corps told writer Oral Bullard. After the initial excavation had begun, specifications for Bonneville were altered to include the installation of a fish ladder and other facilities to aid migrating fish. “There are people today who will swear that they were included in the original plans, but they weren’t, and if the conservationists hadn’t raised a little hell they never would have been,” he said (Bullard, 45).
Bonneville, completed in 1938, is a relatively low dam, roughly 70 feet above the water line. But the 550-foot-high Grand Coulee is one of the largest in the world. It was simply not possible to build a fish ladder -- basically a staircase of pools -- high enough to get fish over such an obstacle. Grand Coulee plugged the Columbia with more than 12 million cubic yards of concrete. Its completion in 1941 brought an end to wild salmon and steelhead fisheries on the entire upper Columbia and its tributaries.
The devastating impact of Grand Coulee on upper river fisheries served as a rallying point for opposition to proposals for additional dams. “If present plans of the dam builders go through, the rich anadromous fishery resources of the Columbia Basin are doomed,” warned Paul R. Needham, director of fisheries for the Oregon State Game Commission, in a speech before the Izaak Walton League in Chicago in March 1947. “We have seen the ‘eager beavers’ bent on changing the face of America ... frankly, the outlook for finding an unspoiled stream fifty feet wide after another fifty years will be pretty slim” (Oregon Business Review, 1947).
Needham called for an independent review of each of the 69 dams then being considered for the Columbia and its tributaries. He argued that the cost-benefit analysis for each project, beginning with McNary Dam -- then on the eve of construction -- should include the potential impact on fish and wildlife. “The acceptance without question of the engineering proposals of the agencies that will construct the dams is a little like accepting without question the advice of the first salesman we meet when we want to buy a new car,” he said. “Maybe we ought to shop around a little” (Oregon Business Review, 1947).
In 1946, Congress amended the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act to require that biological surveys be conducted in areas affected by dams and other water projects. By the time the law took effect, the Army Corps of Engineers had already begun building McNary Dam.
Congress had authorized the dam -- originally called Umatilla Dam after its location just below the Umatilla Rapids -- in May 1941. The U.S. entry into World War II just seven months later delayed the start of construction until May 1947. The dam was renamed in honor of Senator Charles L. McNary (1874-1944), a Republican who represented Oregon in the Senate from 1917 until his death in 1944. One of the most powerful politicians in the Northwest, McNary was a tireless advocate of developing the river to what he considered its full potential.
Representatives of the Nez Perce and Umatilla Indian tribes sought an injunction to prevent further work on the dam in early 1948, on grounds that it would cause irreparable damage to already seriously depleted salmon stocks. A district court denied the request, and appeals courts refused to intervene.
The 183-foot high dam was completed in 1954. As a result of pressure from the tribes, conservationists, and commercial and sports fishermen, it was equipped with two fish ladders, one on each side of the structure.
The dam created a 64-mile-long reservoir, called Lake Wallula, with 242 miles of shoreline. Under a 1948 amendment to the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, five separate areas near the reservoir were set aside as wildlife preserves. The largest of these was the 3,600-acre McNary National Wildlife Refuge. In 2000, the four other preserves -- the Peninsula, Two Rivers, Wallula, and Stateline wildlife management units -- were merged with McNary, creating a refuge of about 16,000 acres.
More than 200 species of birds frequent the McNary National Wildlife Refuge, attracted by a diverse range of habitats, including open water, sloughs, marshes, delta mudflats, riparian woodlands, irrigated cropland, abandoned pastures, islands, bluffs, and shrub-steppe uplands.
Up to 100,000 mallards and geese spend the winter on the refuge, concentrating in an area known as the Wallula Delta. Many of them feed in other areas, resulting in magnificent flights of waterfowl that leave the Delta during the early morning hours and then return in early evening. The flocks are typically in residence from October to March, peaking in December. The Delta is also a magnet for more unusual migrants, including yellow-rumped warblers, white-crowned sparrows, and Western bluebirds.
Wigeons, northern shovelers, canvasback, and redhead ducks nest in the marshes, along with grebes, burrowing owls, marsh wrens, and yellow-headed blackbirds. Bald eagles also are regular visitors to the marshes. Northern harriers, red-tailed hawks, and American kestrels hunt over the refuge’s fields in the summer. Peregrine falcons can occasionally be seen around the cliffs and bluffs.
American white pelicans, double-crested cormorants, osprey, and great blue herons are among the species that feast on fish in the refuge’s waterways.
The refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In recent years, the managers have regularly mowed and burned dense stands of bulrush, to open up feeding areas along the shoreline of Lake Wallula. They’ve also installed artificial nesting tubs, to protect waterfowl from predators. Efforts have been made to eliminate carp and bullhead from the wetlands, to encourage the growth of the aquatic plants and insects that provide food for the waterfowl.
A 1.9-mile trail takes visitors around part of a 150-acre wetland called the Burbank Slough. Interpretative signs and a birdwatching blind are located along the trail. Also on the trail is a tule lodge, built in 2000 by eighth graders from the Columbia Middle School in Burbank, Washington, with help from the Wanapum People. The lodge serves as a reminder of the Native Americans who lived, hunted, and fished in this region for thousands of years before the first Euro-Americans arrived.