The Hanford Reach is a section of the Columbia River that flows through the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in central Washington State. It is the last non-tidal, free-flowing section (ie, unencumbered by a dam) of the Columbia River flowing within the sovereign borders of the United States of America.
The river is left here, unmolested, for one reason only – the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
Originally built during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project, the Hanford site was intended for nuclear research and plutonium generation.
The plutonium used in both the Trinity test site bomb, and the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, was created at Hanford.
The reservation created for this facility is huge – thousands of acres. 586 square miles of desert scrub land, receiving no more than 10 inches of rain in an entire year.
|The radiation is not why it's all brown|
Yes, dear reader, Washington State, the Evergreen State, known for its rain and its green landscapes, is actually mostly desert…
I grew up in the Tri-Cities, which abut the southeast corner of the reservation. Present day population is about 230,000 people, and the main industry there, other than manning the nuclear reservation, is agriculture. In fact, the Columbia Valley, in which the Tri-Cities sit, is fast becoming one of the nations most prestigious and well-known viticultural areas, meaning they make wine there.
The entire valley is studded with wineries, so wifey and I spend at least a couple weekends a year there running around restocking our wine cellars and pretending we’re not getting drunk from the wine tasting. When I grew up there, though, there was a sort of unsettling knowledge that, even though we lived out in the middle of nowhere, if things ever got sporty enough between the US and Russia that the buttons got pushed, we’d be the first to be incinerated, because of the Hanford site just ten miles outside of town.
Paradoxically, given the site is the most contaminated nuclear site in America, and is only eclipsed in contamination by disaster sites like Chernobyl, is also one of the most preserved natural sites in the American West.
Unmolested after the 1940’s due to the top secret nature of the Manhattan Project (less than ten people on the site during construction at any given time actually knew that they were building a nuclear testing facility, out of 44,000) and the huge area of land around it as a buffer zone, the Hanford site boasts one of the last untouched upland steppe areas left in our nation. There was never any grazing, farming, or anything other than hunting activities by Native Americans prior to the creation of the reservation. So wildlife runs free. It is one of the last bastions of the Sage Grouse in the State of Washington. Much of the land has been converted into the Saddle Mountain Wildlife Preserve, in an effort to make sure that this ecological treasure is not lost as the Hanford site is slowly decommissioned and closed down.
This paradoxical ecological effect includes the river, itself. Used for cooling water for the reactors, the river was included in the exclusion zone for the site. No dams were built on this stretch, since during the golden age of dam building on the Columbia (1935 through about 1965) the site was off limits and top secret. So the river was left unmolested, and as a result, we have the last stretch of non-tidal river left in the States that is not controlled by dams.
It also happens to be one of the most productive areas to fish for salmon on the entire river.
You see, the Columbia River is huge. The average outflow of the river at the Reach is 118,000 cubic feet of water per second. There is about 8 gallons in a cubic foot, so a quick, dirty conversion says that’s nearing one million gallons a second of discharge. Average.
It can reach as much as 550,000 cubic feet of water per second, or about 4.4 million cubic feet per second during runoff.
|What I'm trying to say is that it's really, really big|
So when you put a dam in this river, the reservoirs backed up behind it are massive. And when you’ve got a massive area of water to cover, your productivity will be lower. If a thousand salmon pass through an area in one day, you’ve got a lot better chance of catching them when they are channeled up in a narrower section of river, than when they are spread out over an expansive reservoir.
Enter the Hanford Reach, a narrow, shallow, fast flowing section of river, that channels all of the fish into a river only a couple of hundred yards wide, at most, instead of a couple miles wide.
I fished there all weekend, and caught some salmon. The water is shallow, so I was glad to have my jet boat. We boated some nice fish. Here is a picture of my fishing buddy with his Columbia River Chinook.