The last free-flowing part of the American stretch of the Columbia River takes place in the former Hanford Engineering District, managed by the US Army from 1943 onward in order to produce plutonium for the Manhattan Project. This stretch of river is called the Hanford Reach, and is 51 miles long. Chinook salmon spawn here, if they can avoid a navy of fishermen with sonars, the last salmon spawning in the bed of the Columbia. No one grows apples here anymore, though. Those people were all cleared out early in 1943, and their towns, Hanford, White Bluffs, and Richland were all razed to the ground. By apple season that fall, 50,000 men were camped army style in tents on the Hanford townsite, building the industrial complex that would soon be shipping plutonium to the weapons labs in Los Alamos. No one picked the apples. The entire crop, tons upon tons of apples, fell to the ground, in wartime yet. Sometimes men went out there and picked a few. Mostly they just swore at the waste of it all. Here’s Hanford now…
(You’ll should a better view of those trees if you open this image in a new window.)
Hanford Engineer Works was located at this site because of the proximity of cold water, low human population, and the availability of plentiful electricity. The water came from the river (radioactive water returned to the river after its 1 second pass through the reactors raised the temperature of the river 1 degree), the people were cleared away (although they begged to be able to pick their last crop), and the electricity came from Grand Coulee Dam. Originally designed to irrigate all of central washington, to allow for the settling of over 100,000 small, family farms, as a way of reintegrating the dispossessed of the Depression into productive national life, it was sidelined by Hanford into a project (hugely subsidized by the US government) for large industrial farms. That’s where things stand today. To industrialize the landscape, the Army cleared the small, family farms from Hanford as well.
Hanford High School
Now that the Hanford Engineer Works are being cleaned up, this last remaining building in Hanford is a great place for a museum of past agricultural practices, which include the old idea of family farms and the politics in which they were embedded.
Might as well tell the truth. It allows for a better present and a far better future. Here’s some of that diverted water from Grand Coulee returning to the river at Richland, after winding its way across the Columbia Basin, helping the agro-food industry along on its way. (I was raised and trained at an early age to be a manager of the horticultural side of this system.)
And here’s some of that water hard at work, just before making the plunge …
Overhead Irrigation, Granny Smith Apple Orchard, Richland
In a hot, near-desert climate of super-dried air, irrigation like this doesn’t just irrigate the roots of the trees. It also changes the climate.
The engineers got what they wanted. The land is a machine.
Tomorrow: The antidote to the machine: nature at the Hanford Reach.