Water and Power in the Pacific Northwest: The Columbia River

The Columbia River in all its dimensions: scientific, engineering, historical, cultural.


This seminar will explore the nature of and coupling between water, energy, and environmental resources in the Pacific Northwest.  Focusing on the Columbia River, we will explore the geographic, hydrologic, meteorologic, and geologic bases of water, energy, and other natural resources in the Columbia watershed; the historical determinants and consequences of their utilizatiion by indigenous peoples and later settlers; and the economic, social, environmental, and political  issues surrounding those resources in today’s  Columbia Basin, including the impact of climate change as well as shifting cultural and legal standards for resource utilization.

A transnational, multi-state river with a rich human history and the largest residual populations of anadromous salmonids in the continental US, the Columbia supplies a substantial fraction of the electrical energy produced in the Northwest.  From Lewis and Clark’s dugout canoes to today’s vast  volume of barge traffic, the river has been the major transportation link between the Pacific Ocean and the interior Northwest.  It provides the water that irrigates an enormous agricultural empire in Washington and Idaho.  Its watershed is also home to the Hanford Reservation, birthplace of the Nagasaki atomic bomb, a major producer of he U.S. nuclear arsenal during the Cold War, and today one of the most environmentally toxic sites in the nation.  Resource management in the basin is spread across local, state, and Federal, and international agencies, along with several Native American nations.

We will begin with a week of classroom study and discussion on campus, preparing for the field portion of the seminar.  We will then spend approximately ten days in the Columbia basin, visiting historical sites, Native American communities, and several water, energy, resource management facilities across the watershed, e.g., dams and reservoirs with their powerhouses, fish passage facilities, navigation locks, and flood-mitigation systems; a fish hatchery; an irrigation project; operation centers; and offices of regulatory agencies.  We will meet with local residents and relevant policy experts and public officials, along with other stakeholders in the basin.

Over the summer students will be responsible for assigned readings from several sources, including monographs, online materials, and recent news articles.  During the trip, students will maintain a daily reflective journal, and participate in discussion and debate.

Travel expenses during the seminar will be provided (except incidentals) by the Bill Lane Center for the American West and Sophomore College.

Peek inside the 2017 version of the class: Stanford News Article; Instagram Slide Show.

This course uses interviews as part of the application process--keep an eye on your email after the deadline passes.

Meet the Instructor(s)

David Freyberg

Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment

David Freyberg has been on the faculty in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford since 1981.  His teaching and research center on water in the environment and the human use of water, especially in the North American West.  He spends as much time as possible outdoors, for both teaching and research.  Currently he is working with students on sediment-impacted reservoirs, design tools for recycled water systems, cross-border water management between the US and Mexico and Canada, ecosystem services related to landslides and sediment management, and managed aquifer recharge in California.  He is one of the five faculty co-teaching the course, The American West.  Prof. Freyberg has earned recognition for excellence in teaching, including the Stanford School of Engineering Tau Beta Pi Award twice and the School of Engineering’s Eugene Grant Award for Excellence in Teaching twice, most recently in 2019.  He is Stanford’s representative to the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, Inc. (CUAHSI), and the past chair of the National Research Council’s Water Science and Technology Board.  He is the co-author of the widely-used text, Water-Resources Engineering.

David Kennedy

Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History, Emeritus

A founding co-director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, David Kennedy is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History Emeritus at Stanford University. Professor Kennedy received the Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1988. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history in 2000 for Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War. He received an A.B. in History from Stanford University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University.

Reflecting his interdisciplinary training in American Studies, which combined the fields of history, literature, and economics, Professor Kennedy’s scholarship is notable for its integration of economic and cultural analysis with social and political history. His 1970 book, Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger, embraced the medical, legal, political, and religious dimensions of the subject and helped to pioneer the emerging field of women’s history. Over Here: The First World War and American Society (1980) used the history of American involvement in World War I to analyze the American political system, economy, and culture in the early twentieth century. Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War (1999) recounts the history of the United States in the two great crises of the Great Depression and World War II.


Bruce Cain

Charles Louis Ducommun Professor in Humanities and Sciences and Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and at the Precourt Institute for Energy

Bruce E. Cain is a professor of Political Science at Stanford University and Director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. He received a B.A. from Bowdoin College, a B.Phil. from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and a Ph.D. from Harvard University.  Professor Cain was Director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley from 1990 to 2007 and Executive Director of the UC Washington Center from 2005 to 2012.  He has won awards for his research (Richard F. Fenno Prize, 1988), teaching (Caltech 1988 and UC Berkeley 2003), and public service (Zale Award for Outstanding Achievement in Policy Research and Public Service, 2000). His areas of expertise include political regulation, applied democratic theory, representation, and state politics.