GOLDENDALE, Klickitat County â€” To ride down the Columbia River as the John Day Damâ€™s wall of concrete slowly fills the view from a tugboat is to see what the countryâ€™s largest network of energy-producing dams created through five decades of 20th-century ambition, investment and hubris.
Nearly half the nationâ€™s hydropower electricity comes from more than 250 hydropower dams that were built on the Columbia and its tributaries, a vast and complex arc of industry and technology that touches tens of millions of lives across the West every day.
Google taps the riverâ€™s energy to power a data center 90 minutes east of Portland, drawn by some of the cheapest, most environmentally friendly electricity in the nation. Farmers farther upriver in Washington state pump irrigation water into alfalfa fields, with both the water and the electricity supplied by a dam. The Space Needle in Seattle uses Columbia River electricity to slowly spin tourists in its sky-view restaurant. High-voltage transmission lines shoot south to California.
President Donald Trumpâ€™s administration has proposed rethinking the entire system, with a plan to sell the transmission network of wires and substations owned by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a federal agency that distributes most of the Columbia Basinâ€™s output, to private buyers.
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The idea is part of a package of proposals that would transform much of the infrastructure in the United States to a mixture of public and private partnerships, lowering costs to taxpayers and improving efficiency, administration officials have said. Assets of two other big public power operators, based in Colorado and Oklahoma, would be sold, too, if Congress approves the measure.
Debates about government and its role in land and environmental policy are always highly charged. But perhaps nowhere could the proposed changes have a more significant impact than along the great river of the West: fourth largest by volume in North America, more than 10 times that of the Hudson. Privatization would transform a government service that requires equal standards across a vast territory â€” from large cities to tiny hamlets â€” into a private operation seeking maximum returns to investors.
Wringing profits from a system that has provided electricity at cost would inevitably raise prices, critics of the idea said, while supporters envision a streamlined grid open to innovations that government managers cannot imagine.
A New York Times reporter and photographer went down the river in June, bunking with a five-man tug crew, looking for what is at stake in this new energy debate.
Those stakes start with the scale. Grand Coulee alone, the biggest dam on the river, ships power to 10 states and creates enough electricity to power all the households in Missouri for a year. The 12â€‰million cubic yards of concrete it contains is enough to build a highway from Seattle to Miami.
The possible fate of that system is raising alarms for some, and questions for almost everyone whose life connects to the river.
â€œThe uncertainty is the biggest thing of all: How would it work?â€? Terry Oxley, captain of the tugboat, the Crown Point, said as he gazed at the water, hands flicking the controls with practiced aplomb. Oxley, 63, has worked the tugs for 39 years.
â€œI guess I want more input,â€? he added. â€œWhoâ€™s going to control it? Whoâ€™s going to have the say-so? When are they going to release the water, the flood control, the spill patterns for the fish? Itâ€™s such a big deal, and itâ€™s all intertwined.â€?
Obligations to tribes
The dams and the locks were built by engineers who transformed â€” or destroyed, depending on your point of view â€” what had been one of the wildest rivers in the United States.
From the mid-1930s, when construction began on the Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams, through the mid-1970s, when the last major dams were completed on two Columbia tributaries, builders set the standard for public works as tools of economic development. Coulee and Bonneville employed about 9,000 construction workers, and Coulee alone cost about $5.5 billion in todayâ€™s inflation-adjusted dollars.
The dams blocked the riverâ€™s flow, creating a network of placid reservoirs. Irrigation canals spidered out, fostering one of the nationâ€™s richest breadbaskets in the orchards and vineyards of Washington. Mammoth turbines powered the airplane factories of Puget Sound and the boom of postwar California.
Development came with costs. Native American tribes saw their lands destroyed. Salmon stocks, already ravaged by overfishing, were driven into further peril by rising water temperatures and dams that made it harder for fish to move up- and downriver in their ancient cycles of reproduction.
Native American tribal leaders said that the old river would never come back, but that the federal government was now bound, through court decisions and treaties, to work with tribes going forward.
â€œObligations are tied to the federal relationship,â€? said Jaime A. Pinkham, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and a member of the Nez Perce tribe. â€œWhen you privatize, what happens to the voice of the Indian people?â€?
Not new, but different
While the idea of selling some or all of what the federal government built here is not new â€” President Ronald Reagan floated the idea in the early 1980s â€” itâ€™s a much different debate this time. Reagan proposed a clean-sweep sale of public power into private hands, from dams to wires.
The new proposal would keep the electricity-making in government control, while spinning off the system of getting that electricity to market. Partial privatization would require complex new contracts delineating the responsibilities of the public and private partners. And what feeds into that system has grown more complicated since the 1980s, with a huge growth of new sources like wind and solar.
Some energy experts who back the Trump plan said that despite the thorny details, a powerful word could resonate in Congress: fairness. Low prices in a nonprofit system have been a huge boost to economic growth in this region.
â€œWe should have a debate about why some minority of Americans get subsidized power and others donâ€™t,â€? said Chris Edwards, an economist at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.
Government brought electricity to remote rural towns starting in the 1930s, and people there havenâ€™t forgotten.
John Friederichs, manager of the Ferry County Public Utility District in northeast Washington, said a shift in focus to larger population centers, because thatâ€™s where the profits are, could leave tiny markets like his â€” about 7,500 people â€” out in the cold with lower priority for maintenance or repairs.
â€œWhen you have something that works, having caution about changing it seems reasonable,â€? he said.
Powerful new economic voices have emerged since the last big grid debate, as companies like Google, Microsoft and Amazon invested billions of dollars in building data centers for the internet in Bonnevilleâ€™s territory. Those new customers already inject greater private- market forces into the system as they negotiate contracts for their energy needs.
Wind vs. water power
In cities like The Dalles, Oregon, 90 minutes east of Portland, Google has become a community patron of sorts, residents said, with grants to libraries and schools.
â€œGoogle has been good for us,â€? said the cityâ€™s mayor, Steve Lawrence. â€œTheyâ€™re a full partner.â€?
But discontent with the old system of public power has grown in some places, bolstering the political chances of privatization. In Sherman County, Oregon, for example, southeast of The Dalles, Trump won 72 percent of the vote, and critics of Bonneville seem just about as prevalent because of how grid operators have incorporated, or not, the new rising force of wind energy into a system dominated by hydropower.
Wind revenue is paying for the expansion of the Sherman County Courthouse and the annual dividend checks that property owners in the county have received. Kathy McCullough said kilowatt dollars had become important to her family farmâ€™s budget, hedging against fluctuations in wheat prices.
Bonnevilleâ€™s power managers repeatedly hit the off switch on wind this year in Sherman â€” curtailment is the term â€” because too much water was coming through the dams after last winterâ€™s huge snowpack, which in turn meant more hydroelectricity flowing through the grid.
More curtailments have happened this year than ever, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, as Bonneville managers struggled to keep the system in balance. A change in ownership, supporters of the Trump plan in Sherman said, could be good for them in opening new opportunities for wind-power sales.
â€œThe BPA does a terrible job,â€? McCullough said in reference to Bonneville Power. â€œI donâ€™t know that privatizing would be bad at all.â€?