Another Flood

“The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Ecology have completed an appraisal level study of potential Columbia River mainstem off-channel storage sites…The appraisal study determined that the Crab Creek site represents a potentially viable reservoir location. This site appears to be preferable to the Hawk Creek site based on both cost and technical feasibility criteria.” From Columbia River Basin Storage Options – Columbia River Mainstem, Department of Ecology web page.

A brief stop on a car tour of the Crab Creek Highway in the late 1940s. This is near the location where the Department of Ecology and the Bureau of Reclamation would like to place a dam 250 feet high and a mile and a half wide.

The government is back in the dam building business. This time it looks like they’re going to dam Crab Creek! There are only two sites currently under consideration for a new water storage (and possible power generation) facility off the main channel of the Columbia River in Washington State. The results of the preliminary study favor damming Lower Crab Creek to create a reservoir that inundates the entire valley, from an earth core dam 250 feet high near Beverly to high water shorelines near Taunton. If you’ve spent any time on this blog, you can be sure I have deep reservations about building such a dam and flooding what I consider to be unique historical, cultural and environmental landscapes.

My family is perhaps lucky in this situation. Although the new lake created by the Crab Creek Dam would cover our ancestral homestead and the ranch that succeeded it, the more recent Danielson spread appears to be right about at the shoreline. But when the new lake is created, other infrastructure will have to be altered. It looks as though a massive power line will cut down Danielson Road, looming over the house I grew up in.

This view of the Lower Crab Creek valley, taken in the early 1950s (as my father notes: before irrigation), shows what will be a lake if the dam is built.

Will it happen? I don’t know. In this day of budget crisis funding may be difficult to pry out of the government. But who knows whether a Roosevelt-style public works program might not use the dam project as a solution to the economic slump. It’s the type of program that stands a chance of succeeding: employment of a vast range of professional and working types, new power generation, new irrigation storage, amelioration of a certain habitat (albeit at the cost of destroying other more unique habitat), benefits to local industries and those further afield. It might even help to restore the aquifer depleted by injudicious permission to pump water for irrigation circles.

There is a large coalition of environmental, outdoors and sporting groups opposed to the dam project. Fewer, perhaps, are opposed on the grounds of the cultural destruction. But then the loss of irreplaceable cultural sites has seldom stood in the way of progress. Look what happened to the Marmes Rock Shelter or the petroglyphs that were inundated behind Columbia River mainstream dams.

A view of Lower Crab Creek Canyon from the edge of the Ice Age landslide, showing a plateau that is traversed by at least three identifiable human footpaths. These would be travel routes humans used to move from water to water before horses arrived.

Cultural losses from the dam and lake would include surface scatter like the projectile points we once so happily snatched up on our hikes, homesites of pioneers and Native American peoples, artifacts, temporary camps, corrals, farms, townsites, monuments, roads, trails and fortifications. The damming and flooding of Red Rock Canyon seemed disastrous to those of us who knew of its former uses as an Indian hunting ground and a pioneer corral. Under the new plan, the canyon itself will disappear beneath a new lake.

A short list of some of the sites of historical interest and perhaps archaeological significance that may be destroyed by the Crab Creek Dam project includes:

  • Indian hemp fields near the mouth of Crab Creek were thickets of Indian hemp, used by Native Americans for weaving fabrics and making mats to cover their lodges. These resources were important enough to be fought over in inter-tribal conflicts.
  • The Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, which isn’t exactly a cultural asset, but which provides naturalists and scientists with fertile ground. It’s ironic that one of the reasons for building the Crab Creek Dam is to enhance salmon habitat, but that its construction would doom the efforts of more than fifty years of conservation and rehabilitation of the desert habitat around Crab Creek.
  • Chief Moses’s Winter Camp described by A. J. Splawn in his valuable memoir, Kamiakin. Splawn places the Moses camp at eight miles from the Columbia, where Crab Creek sinks into the sand. This doesn’t happen since the days of irrigation, but the site is identifiable by a rich scatter of rock chips from the manufacture of projectile points and tools over thousands of years of occupation. The archaeological significance of the site is diminished by looting, but the chips are scattered for miles along both sides of the creek, an indication that the area may yet contain surprises.
  • The Ice Cave which was located at the base of steep talus slopes near Moses’s camp. Originally, the cave provided natural refrigeration for Native Americans and white settlers. The Milwaukee Road construction crews used it to store their food. Landslides have covered the entrance to the cave. Speculation over the phenomenon includes the idea that a huge chunk of Ice Age glacier remains interred beneath the steep talus, where a landslide covered it during the last Missoula Flood.
  • Railroad Properties including miles of track (and presently, trails), sidings, wreck sites, transmission lines and power boosting facilities, artifact scatters and dumps, and town sites of at least three Milwaukee Road stops: Jericho, Smyrna and Corfu. Smyrna is the only one where residents remain.
  • Relic Scatters, including artifacts from pioneers and the occasional cartridge belt from a World War II fighter training flight. I’ll write about an interesting rifle that was discovered on our home place another time.
  • Pioneer Settlements from isolated sheds and homesteads to highly developed ranch sites. Remains  include wooden, brick, native stone and concrete structures; stone, wood and wire fences and corrals; roads and trails, including the Corfu Highway; wells, barns and dumps. The earliest pioneer site surviving is Ben Hutchinson’s cabin (1884) which is made of driftwood logs on native stone piers with a native stone cellar excavated into the adjacent talus.
  • Native American sites such as temporary hunting camps, mines for flint, chert or other glassy rocks for making tools and weapons; footpaths; hunting blinds or refuges on buttes and mesas; lodge sites, caches and tipi rings; ephemeral surface scatter; rock shelters and interments amongst the talus.

A ghostly ring in the soil reveals the remains of a Native American dwelling. It lies in line with and adjacent to a longhouse site just paces from the banks of Crab Creek. The lake will cover this unexcavated and un-looted site.

  • Undiscovered archaeological sites Lower Crab Creek was a rare oasis in the deserts of Eastern Washington. Some of Washington’s oldest human artifacts and remains have been discovered within 150 miles of this valley: Marmes Rock Shelter, Kennewick Man, the Lind Coulee artifacts, the East Wenatchee clovis points. With archaeological technology changing so rapidly, it makes sense that new sites might soon be discovered using ground-penetrating radar or lidar imaging.

These are, of course, only a few of the objections to the dam and lake based on cultural or historical interest. There are also profound objections to the project in terms of biology, geology and ecology, not to mention economic principles. The area provides habitat for migratory waterfowl, including the Sandhill Cranes, and for native plants and animals (the endangered pygmy rabbit, for instance). I am certainly not qualified to catalog the environmental losses from the dam, although I would indeed mourn the flooding of the fields where I had so many personal encounters with the wildlife of the region.

Let me encourage my readers to do a little more research on their own, to find out more about the rationale for building the dam and perhaps to read about some of the objections to the project from a variety of organizations. And if you find the time and feel the motivation, perhaps a note to a legislator would be in order.

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3 responses to “Another Flood

  1. Lisa and I took a trip up Crab Creek last year and I spent two days traveling the entire length if the creek. Its importance historically is likely greatly under estimated. Thanks for the psot.

  2. My father worked on the pads for the transmission lines coming from Grand Coulee. He and my grandfather found and stored their lunches in that very ice cave you talked about. I always hoped someone would make that some kind of national historic sight…

  3. This is very cool. Iv lived by Royal city my whole life and iv explored the saddle mountains and crab creek numerous times and have always been facsinated with the area. Its like stepping back in time.

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