- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2004

COULEE CITY, Wash. (AP) — Dry Falls lives up to its name. Not a drop of water can be found on the rocks near Grand Coulee Dam.

But 15,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, catastrophic waters roared over the 500-foot cliffs. The spectacle dwarfed Niagara Falls, its power 10 times greater than the force of all the world’s rivers combined.

Back then, the cataclysmic floodwaters in the region scoured away the soils of eastern Washington and carried house-sized boulders from Montana as far away as Oregon.

Now Congress is considering whether to create a National Geologic Trail that would stretch from Missoula, Mont., to the Willamette Valley in Oregon and tell the story of the floods.

The four-state auto route would be managed by the National Park Service and follow the path of the floodwaters through four states.

It would be the first such auto route in the country dedicated to the geology of an area, rather than the human history, and backers of the proposal say it has economic benefits.

“By supporting economic development, creating jobs in local communities and preserving our heritage for generations to come, this trail will be an outstanding step forward for the region,” said Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat.

Rep. Doc Hastings, Washington Republican, introduced a bill last month that would give the Park Service the authority to create the route.

Scientists think the floods occurred repeatedly, perhaps as many as 50 times, between 17,000 and 13,000 years ago. A lobe of continental glacier would block the path of the Clark Fork River near the Idaho-Montana border and cause water to back up hundreds of miles into the Bitterroot and Flathead valleys of Montana. Water towered 950 feet above the present city of Missoula, where ancient shorelines are etched into the sides of hills surrounding the city.

Ice makes a poor dam, and eventually the lake broke free, sending 2,900 square miles of water pouring across northern Idaho and eastern Washington. Floodwaters hit the Columbia River near present-day Wenatchee, Wash., and roared westward.

The water tore fertile soil from thousands of square miles of land and deposited them in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Rushing waters gouged giant coulees and made waterfalls three miles wide.

Flood features are visible from space and have been used by scientists as they study comparable features on Mars.

Pioneering geologist J. Harlen Bretz of the University of Chicago came up with the theory of catastrophic floods that shaped the landscape over a matter of days.

His theory, introduced in 1923, was pilloried for decades by those who followed the conventional wisdom that geologic events took place gradually, not all at once. Mr. Bretz was called a dunce and a heretic, but his work became widely accepted over time.

The route would follow the models of the Oregon National Historic Trail, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trial and the Nez Perce National Historic Park, using road signs and interpretive displays to guide visitors.

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