Reviewed by Jack Nisbet
Anyone who reads Eileen Pearkes’ regular column in this magazine understands that she has a deep interest in the history and fate of the Columbia River. She has been a tireless voice reporting on the Canadian half of the great river’s story, as well as insisting that consideration of the drainage as a whole, stripped of the international boundary, will be key to any healthy relationship between people and water going forward.
Pearkes’ new book, A River Captured, tells the story of the dams created by the Columbia River Treaty (CRT). After laying the groundwork of fur trade contact with indigenous peoples of the river, she describes how the salmon-stopping wall of Grand Coulee Dam in 1941, followed by the huge flood year of 1948, ushered in a secondary wave of dam construction on the great border-straddling circle formed by the Kootenai and Columbia Rivers. The heart of her book is a blow-by-blow account of the creeping decisions that led to the creation of the system we live with today, especially the Libby, High Arrow (now called the Hugh Keenleyside) and Mica Dams.
It is a challenging treatment at all levels. Pearkes faithfully recounts the often tortuous political discussion within the province of British Columbia, across the vast reach of Canada to Ottawa, and between the U.S. and Canadian governments that led to the CRT and the flood control plan carried out the 1950s and ’60s. Along the way, she weaves in personal investigations of this landscape in present-day time, the deep past of the tribal cultures that lived along the river, accounts of early white settlers, and the aching sense of loss among both farmers and native peoples whose lands were drowned by CRT reservoirs.
While this approach sometimes leads to footnotes than run across pages and transitions that bounce around in time, a willing reader soon comes to share Pearkes’ sense that it is the only way to tackle such a grand river. She needs to tell as much of the whole story as she can, piece by piece.
A River Captured contains a host of maps and photographs that help to drive home the fact that a drainage, once altered, can never return to the way it was. While Pearkes remains fully aware of that fact, she also understands that the upcoming renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty offers at least a
chance for a new direction. Her history of how past decisions were pounded out between political parties and governments with little sense of landscape or long-term consequences clearly shows how the next version of the treaty will require a much more comprehensive vision – an understanding based on shared compromises involving real science and real people. Most importantly, Pearkes writes, “Let’s not forget to ask what the River wants. Or what it needs.”
Article originally published in December issue of The North Columbia Monthly. Reprinted by permission.