Lessons from a journey up the Columbia — September 2017

It has been a month since I finished my journey up the Columbia River. Since then, I have struggled to coalesce the experience into writing that reflects all that I saw, heard, and felt in those five weeks. But in trying to write I remembered that the core purpose of this trip was for me to learn. So, I have decided to write about some of the many lessons I learned along the river. I learned much factual information about the Columbia River, its history, its infrastructure, its fish, and its people; however the lessons described here are not so much about specific facts but rather are more general insights that arose from six weeks and 2000 kilometers of careful observation. If you are curious which specific experiences led to any of these insights, I would be happy to talk personally in greater detail. 

1. If you want to understand a place, it is crucial to go there and experience it. Last winter, I did a research fellowship at Quest University Canada studying the Columbia River and the Columbia River Treaty. During that time, my supervisor urged me to take advantage of my flexible schedule by making a trip out to Grand Coulee Dam or some other important place along the river. I agreed with his suggestion but was not swayed enough to spend the time and money for the trip. I thought I was doing fine by studying the river remotely, which seems to be a very common mindset in academia. I now realize how right he was — I am convinced that it is absolutely essential to spend significant time in the places you wish to study.

2. Anadromous fish are truly amazing creatures. I did not swim up the Columbia River, but I have a sense of what it takes to ascend a watershed under one's own power — I can only marvel at their athleticism. 

3. Many people do not explicitly realize that they live in a watershed. They live somewhere and they know there is water because they use it every day but they often do not consider their position within the watershed and what this means for their lives. I believe this is because people today primarily relate to their home landscape through the road network they use to get around, not through the water that nourishes them. I was especially struck by this at the headwaters of the Columbia near the town of Invermere. The Columbia Basin as a whole is enormous and produces a lot of water, but because this area is at the very head of the basin it actually draws water from a very small catchment. As a result, the towns here are challenged to provide ample clean water to their residents. A longtime local I met there told me that local people do not seem to understand this and as a result, treat their fragile water supply as if it was relatively limitless and immune to damage.

4. Many people living in and near the Columbia River Basin did not know where the river started or ended or flowed in between. This is unfortunate because I found my own experience of the Columbia Basin to be hugely enriched by the knowledge of where the water was going and where it has come from. On this, I wrote in my journal that: “this river has been my guide across the landscape and I know that every place I visit is connected to the place where I began.”

5. The location of the source of a river says more about how we think than how watersheds actually work. We say that Canal Flats is the source of the Columbia because it is the source of the branch with the greatest flow. But, we could conceivably also decide the official source of the river should be the source of its longest branch or the source of its highest branch, in which case the source of the Columbia would be the headwaters of the Snake River. We generally determine headwaters by flow, but for the Columbia this is also tricky because the water that flows from the spring that is the source of the Columbia at Canal Flats actually seeps through the ground from the nearby Kootenay River, which is 4 meters higher. So, the Columbia actually starts with water from what we consider to be one of its tributaries!

6. You can learn just as much in off-the-record conversations at the kitchen tables as in formal office interviews.

7. Some people involved in the politics of the Columbia River view the work of academics in this realm as self-serving because their work is sometimes more geared toward their own self-promotion than to what would actually be most useful for the groups they want to support. If academics wish to be of genuine service to those involved in river issues, they must be self-critical and listen carefully.

8. History matters. Some of the most powerful advice I received in the many conversations I had along the river came from Klickitat elder and hereditary chief Wilbur Slockish Jr. We were sitting at a park bench in Wishram, Washington next to the submerged site of Cellilo Falls discussing the history of relations between native and settler people on the river. I asked his advice on how to approach contemporary issues on the Columbia; he counseled me to learn the real, complete history and to use that to inform my thinking about the present and the future.

9. Political struggles over the river are not just struggles over a resource but rather are struggles between competing ways of life. Historian Richard White puts this well in The Organic Machine, one of the books I read on my trip — he points out that the Columbia River as it has been modified and managed is both a reflection of our social divisions as well as the site where those divisions continually play out. 

10. Ultimately, everyone speaks from their own personal experience and even if their job is to consider an issue objectively, their analysis will be colored by biases. 

11. Many residents of the Columbia Basin are dissatisfied with the way that the river is managed. I believe that this is because, as mentioned above, they are approaching the issue from their own particular perspective. They understand the river in terms of what it does or means (or what it could do or mean) for their own life. They do not tend to consider the management of the river as the result of ongoing political compromise between many groups with conflicting interests and varying degrees of power. This narrow perception leads people to focus on how the river falls short of what it could be for their particular interests, if they were the only group determining its management. They tend to blame this shortfall on the other interests on the river and on the government for unfairly favoring those others. For example, I talked to irrigators who believe agriculture is the chief use of Columbia River water, surpassing all others including power generation. I spoke with power executives who see hydroelectricity and its revenue as the driving force that enables all other interests in the Basin. And I spoke with tribal fishermen who see modern development (of power, irrigation etc.) as a negative force which has destroyed the river’s truly valuable resources in favor of shallow short-term gains. It is not wrong to be dissatisfied with the river's management if it falls short of your ideal and it is certainly worth fighting for fairness. But it seems that spreading a broader perspective, which understands the state of the river as a political compromise, could help generate more productive dialogue between parties.

12. In my opinion, the most credible perspectives on the river are of those who, first and foremost, consider the river and its watershed as their home. 


July 1 — It takes a long time to know a place

I am one week into my trip up the Columbia River and I have learned a lot. I have also learned how little I have learned.

I recognize the privilege that I have to be able to devote five weeks to pure exploration. But, I also realize now that five weeks is not nearly enough time to gain anything near to a deeper understanding of the watershed. If this trip was merely about cycling, it would take around 3 weeks to peddle the distance from the Columbia's mouth to its headwaters. I have added an extra two weeks to allow time for reading books about the place and speaking with people along the way.

Originally, I naively thought that this would be enough time to grasp all the opportunities I was likely to encounter. But I have found that there are many more people that I could speak with if I only had the time to accommodate everyone's schedules. There are many more things to read than I have time for (or the legs to carry on my bike). There are many places in which I would love to linger but I must peddle past to keep moving if I am to arrive at the headwaters in time.

I could easily spend a whole summer or longer on this trip and even then would not run out of possibilities. As is stands, each week I hope to able to:

  • Read one book.
  • Interview a handful of people.
  • Ride around 300 miles of the river.
  • Linger in a handful of special places to explore more closely. 

It is only a start, but I will strive to make the most of it and be content with just dipping my toes into the matter. 


Notes from the International Conference on Engineering and Ecohydrology for Fish Passage
June 19-21, 2017 — Oregon State University, Covallis, Oregon

Before starting my ride up the Columbia, I attended a three day conference on fish passage at Oregon State University. The conference takes place annually and is a forum for engineers, fisheries biologists, researchers, and government officials involved in fish passage efforts to share their work, discuss successes and challenges, and connect with colleagues.

This was a really productive event for me because I have studied fish passage from a legal and political perspective and so far have paid little attention to the technical challenge of actually getting fish past obstacles. By learning from the many experts here, I was able to fill in some of that technical gap. 

A few key points from my notes:

  • John Sirois of the Upper Columbia United Tribes, kicked off the conference by highlighting monumental opportunities for fish passage in the Pacific Northwest's near future, including the potential reintroduction of anadromous fish to the Upper Columbia Basin through the modernization of the Columbia River Treaty. He compared fish passage professionals to the "Monuments Men" of World War II that were tasked with recovering priceless works of art and cultural heritage that had been stolen and lost. John says that by recovering lost habitat for fish, we can protect the aquatic resources that hold such astounding ecological and cultural value for the Pacific Northwest. We can become the "Monuments Men" of our generation.
  • With examples from Japan, Dr. Futoshi Nakamura highlighted the link between forest, stream, and marine ecosystems. By providing fish passage for aquatic populations, we can start an ecological ripple effect that will reverberate through not only the entire terrestrial watershed (upstream and downstream of a given fish passage project) but into the connected marine ecosystems as well. 
  • Depending on the quality of its design, the effectiveness of fish passage facilities in transporting fish past a barrier can range from near 0% to near 100%. Also, it's crucial that fish passage design is matched to the target species. Salmonid species in North America have received the most fish passage attention by far. It's important to recognize that salmon-centric designs will be far less effective for other fish.
  • From a purely fish health oriented perspective, the best way to provide fish passage is always just to remove the dam. This is not always possible due to technical, financial, or political constraints but it is the ideal.
  • Dr. Tony Farrell discussed the physiological impacts of fish passage on salmon species. It's very important that fish ladders or other passage facilities minimize the amount of stress placed on the fish because salmon stop eating before they migrate and rest little during their migration. This means that they have a limited amount of energy they can use to travel to their spawning grounds and spawn once they arrive. If they use too much energy traveling upstream, they might not make it to their destination or might not have the energy to spawn once they get there. This consideration is magnified by the effect of rising water temperatures due to climate change. High water temperatures diminish the ability of fish to migrate and, if extreme, can threaten their survival. This was especially evident in 2015 when low snowpacks resulted in extremely warm water which caused massive fish kills across the PNW (http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/environment/snowpack-drought-has-salmon-dying-in-overheated-rivers/). 
  • It's easy to think that fish passage is all about getting past big dams but there is also a huge amount of important habitat that is blocked by small culverts, road bridges, and other little barriers. For example, in British Columbia there are nearly 100,000 barriers of this kind that block access to nearly 300,000 square kilometers of fish habitat. For many fish, access to these smaller areas of spawning habitat can (over time) make the difference in the long term health trajectory of the population.
  • New fish passage technologies promise to push the limits of fish passage in coming years. For example, Whooshh Innovations has created a way of passing fish over barriers through suspended tubes that move the fish using pressure differentials (the "salmon cannon" — you must watch the video on their website). These technologies have the potential to make fish passage much less expensive and could enable unprecedented passage over extremely large dams like Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph. 
  • As the final keynote speaker, Dr. Kurt Fausch gave a powerful message on the true value of rivers for fish and people. It's obvious that free flowing rivers are essential for fish but diverse fields including neuroscience and evolutionary biology are now also showing that intact riverscapes are fundamental for humans as well. As we try to advance fish passage and other conservation efforts, Kurt councils that "we will need to understand how and why we love rivers, if we hope to conserve them." More wisdom can be found in his new book, For the Love of Rivers: A Scientist's Journey, which won the 2016 Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award.