Retired Washington State University economist Norm Whittlesey is sitting at his kitchen table with two other retired economists, Walt Butcher and Ken Casavant. They are reminiscing about the collective 150 years they have worked on and around the Columbia River.

“We used to catch steelhead on the Snake River before the dam,” says Whittlesey. “I’ve got a picture of Walt with, what, a 25 pounder?”

Walt Butcher chuckles and says, “That fish might be up to 25 pounds by now.”

Casavant adds, “It’s been growing, even after being eaten.”

With a sweep of his hand across a map of the Columbia River watershed on the table in front of him, Whittlesey says, “But that’s gone now. Now there’s recreation, water skis.”

That’s the way it is with people who’ve spent a lot of years on the River and its tributaries. Something lost, something gained: a blessing, sure, but one mixed with regret and backwards-looking questions. What if we’d done something different?

The three economists try to get at the value of the river and its watershed, ticking off benefits: power, navigation, irrigation, recreation, fisheries, flood control. Whittlesey says, “The way decisions are made is on the costs versus the benefits in the public interest.”

The greatest good for the most people led to the system of 60 or so dams on the rivers of the watershed. In the heyday of dam building, the three decades after the end of World War Two, there were conversations about constructing a canal that would shuttle water from the Columbia all the way to California. And about doubling the size of the irrigation project in the Columbia Basin, from half a million to a million or more acres.

One of the arguments in favor of moving water out of the River and onto farms, or to California, was the perception that, as Whittlesey says, “all that water is just running down to the sea.” True enough, the three economists concur, but every inch of the way is downhill, and the dams capture that incline as power. Divert the water, lose the power and the navigation. Agriculture’s gain would have been the regional loss of cheap electricity.

That, anyway, was the calculation Whittlesey made at the time, when he was asked to weigh in with his expert opinion on the expansion of the Columbia Basin irrigation project. It must have been like being asked to predict the future. But as one wag put it, prediction is hard. Especially about the future.

Casavant asks, “All that was pre-salmon issue, or was that starting about then?” Butcher says, “The salmon issue was starting about then,” meaning, indigenous people were organizing and insisting that their treaty rights be honored, and salmon were placed on the Endangered Species list as “threatened.” Those rights include fishing at the Native American’s “usual and accustomed” places along the system of rivers.

Whittlesey says, “We didn’t include fisheries. In retrospect, we should have.” By the 1970s, commercial fishing for salmon on the Columbia River had declined so sharply that it wasn’t perceived as having economic value.

But, of course, the indigenous peoples weren’t doing the same kind of math. Salmon wasn’t just a food or a source of income. Salmon is a spiritual reservoir, a keeper of a way of life, a way of earning a sustainable living from the land. Who can put a value on that, except to say it’s priceless?

Now, Casavant says, we’re substituting “meat for meat.” Wild fish have been replaced with “foreign hatcheries,” fish introduced into the river to keep the numbers up in order to meet requirements specified in the Endangered Species Act. But that, too, comes with a cost, as genetic diversity takes a nose dive because, for the most part, salmon are no longer able to make the incredible journey from river to sea to river, with all the evolutionary pressure that journey entails.

Whittlesey jabs a finger at the map of the watershed. “When they built Grand Coulee Dam, 1939, it basically eliminated all of this habitat for salmon and steelhead. And then when they built Dworshak Dam, it eliminated all of central Idaho. And then when they built Hell’s Canyon Dam, that eliminated all of southern Idaho as fisheries habitat. So the fish are constrained to a little bit of what used to be their habitat.”

Now, as the United States sits down with Canada to work out the terms of the next iteration of the Columbia River Treaty, the most sophisticated economic and environmental modeling ever is being done to gauge the value of the watershed. Fish, climate change, agriculture, hydropower, and “the questions of what that means” are, hopefully, all on the table.

Read about the Columbia River and its complex history in “A river rolls on” in our Fall 2018 issue.

You can also read a transcript of Norm Whittlesey’s oral history (a WSU Emeritus Society project) at Washington State Magazine’s Our Story.