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A Tribute to the Dead Waterfall Keeping Your Data Cool

We’ve drowned two of the three largest waterfalls on Earth to power our stuff: our devices, our data, and all the rest of it.

Celilo Falls in the year 2013 is an intimidating place. This has nothing to do with millions of gallons of rushing, falling water plummeting from a ledge at the entrance to the Columbia River Gorge, but the imposing concrete battlements of the Dalles Dam. The dam, made up of several sections of towering concrete and adorned with the giant iron gates of a shipping lock, looms over just one last little riffle of rapid just upstream of the Dalles, Oregon, a town that’s lately seen its economy move from aluminum smelting to keeping Google’s servers cool.

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The main rapid of Celilo is on the other side of all of concrete—as imposing as an alien fortress on some undiscovered planet—buried beneath the waters of Lake Celilo. On the south shore of the Columbia just below the dam is that bit of visible current, only the slightest wrinkles of standing waves, the upstream "V"s of water moving around an object. The bank here is low brown grass and sharp volcanic rock and here you’ll find a line of precarious-looking fishing platforms extending out over the water, plywood forts from which to snag salmon, steelhead, and a variety of lesser catches. Mostly, the river here is flat, still water, same as most anywhere on the Columbia River now. The rapids are all underneath reservoirs—the Dalles Dam is the second upstream of the ocean, above Bonneville Dam, and the succession of dams and reservoirs continues until the river’s headwaters in Canada, even infecting the Columbia’s Snake River tributary as it carves through the gold grasslands of Idaho.

In all of the concrete, fish ladders, locks, and reservoirs that make up the Columbia’s management regime, Celilo Falls is the Army Corps of Engineers' great conquest. Before the dam, the falls were the third largest waterfall in the world. The river, often more than a mile wide at this point in its course, was squeezed to just 140 feet at the falls. The drop itself was nothing—20 feet in a low water period, just a few feet during the floods—but the volume could reach 1,240,000 ft³/second, or about five times the peak flows of Niagara Falls. After the initial drop, the falls continued as rapids for several more miles, finally settling just below the current dam.

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2008 sonar survey of the submerged falls (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Once this was, remembered The Dalles Chronicle in 2006, the “Wall Street of the West,” just for being the crossroads of the Northwest fishing industry. The area was built around the kind of scene in the picture up above: all of the spawning salmon one could eat or sell was there for the taking. Since the dam came and drowned the falls and town, its mostly Native American residents have relocated to a small village bordered by Interstate 84.

"The dams were one of the last major changes to the river that decimated the abundant salmon runs," Elizabeth Woody, director of Ecotrust's Indigenous Leadership Program, told the Chronicle. "It covered up the most visible fishing village on the whole Columbia River."

In exchange for the falls, residents of the area got a half century of aluminum smelting jobs and a node on the Northwest’s new industrial transportation network: barges on the now-tamed river, rail lines up and down and across the Columbia, and two new highways. Thirteen years after the smelter closed down, the Dalles has Google, which takes electricity from the dam’s hydropower station—which in total kicks out enough current to light Portland two times over—to power its servers, while it takes water from Columbia River to keep those servers cool.

Can that provide the same stability as a bottomless trove of salmon? Mostly it doesn’t matter. The center will only employ a few hundred people at best and, in my experience, Google’s gift of municipal wi-fi to the town is kinda spotty. Nonetheless, the Dalles Wikipedia page as of today mentions only Google in its "economy" subsection (though, in fairness, fruit orchards and vines are a huge if more dispersed industry in the region, and the local community college offers a program in wind turbine technology, nodding to the wind farms further east.)

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Google's operation near Celilo Falls

Celilo Falls was the third largest waterfall by volume in the world. The largest, Guaíra Falls in Brazil, is also underwater. That should be a discomfiting notion, I think. We’ve drowned two of the three largest waterfalls on Earth to power our stuff: our devices, our data, our lights, and all the rest of it. The efficiency of hydropower is actually astounding—something like 90 percent—and it’s at the very least not kicking out greenhouse gases. Still, it’s strange to think about that linkage between the hulking dam, drowned falls, and the information cloud as symbolized by a few buildings dominating a small town industrial park.

The Dalles. Courtesy of the author

Last night I drove past the Dalles a few miles east to the village of Celilo, relocated up the hill above the new water line, because I was curious about something. Did Google bring its free municipal wi-fi to the people who used to haul full nets of salmon out of the river everyday here?

Nah. It’s dark mostly.

But I got a look at Celilo. It's a strange place, a suburban subdivision by design, isolated from the closest population by ten or so miles. There's one street of nice-looking log homes in about the same shape as you’d see on a lot of reservations or really anyplace without very much money. Despite hugging the interstate and two separate rail lines, it’s quiet enough. Its Wall Street days are over by many decades; Celilo’s already two economic booms in the past, its forever way of life gone because new technology came up with a more efficient way to use the Columbia River.

But, salmon would have kept leaping into nets at Celilo Falls forever, and we’ll keep throwing our searches and data into Google’s servers forever or forever enough. Until, for some reason so far unforeseen, we stop, or the water stops. Booms share a lot of characteristics.

@everydayelk