Fish, Farms, Coal: An overview of where we are

Yesterday we got together to talk about some of the realities of where we live. Inescapable realities like our geology, the existing infrastructure upon which many are entirely dependent, and the consequences of history that preceded us.

I admit that I took up too much time talking, but I was pretty excited by the information after getting talked to myself by a very enthusiastic hydrologist earlier in the day. What I was trying to capture was the interconnection of large themes across the Columbia River Basin. How big is our watershed, how does it flow, what does it need, and who is using it? I will provide a host of  links below so that you can see more, but here is a starting image.



This is the image I politely am borrowing from the USDA Boise Aquatic Science folks: The Columbia River Basin

And that leads me talk about the humongous size of this basin! Sometimes we talked about the whole basin, and sometimes we pulled back to the Columbia groundwater area, and largely we talked about the number of dams on the mainstem of the Columbia. And though it is hard to conceptualize being connected to that much territory, it is something that each and everyone of us have to begin to understand. And understand it fast because our usage of the groundwater for agriculture and municipal development is literally insane.

The above video is not just a good indicator of water issues that we must confront, but also an indicator of how many people are actually out and about trying to understand and do understandable things in our environment. There are over 400 dams on our riverways and the hydropower dams among those generate our primary source of electricity. (And we are talking more than 21 million kilowatts here.) Unfortunately, the long consequence of dams is that fish populations must be “managed.”  And here is where I think many problems begin to take on a different character.

We humans are now intertwined with a lot of large scale management. We manage the river, and so we have to manage the fish. We manage the farms, and are having to figure out the management of groundwater, and groundwater injection wells to compensate for having taken out 10 000 year old water that is not replaced. We manage urban development, and manage infrastructure and resource extraction. And what we have really managed to do is to F things up.  A lot.

We really did used to have rivers full of fish, and now we try to laud ourselves that the fish increases we have are awesome and well managed. And this is not to dismiss the amazing work done by those that restore and watch and count and attempt to mitigate issues along the watershed. It is intended to acknowledge that the measure of what is healthy and what is acceptable and what it might be are not being held up for viewing. Instead, there are agency reports claiming success to a largely uninvolved citizenry that have no idea what the river was like or could be like or what it takes to manage any of this. There is a distinct lack of understanding of how much work is being done, why it is being done, and whether it is being done well or not. It is also intended to hint that there are tens of thousands of jobs already associated with this river that do not need the extra burden of having the river be an energy corridor. But I jump ahead.

Let’s go back a bit and talk about the money spent on fish and habitat. It is still a pittance in comparison to what we spend on military budgets and killing people for energy resources elsewhere, but for our region the budget is pretty significant. It is hard to really get a grasp on the amount of spending because of the interagency planning, but it is not untoward to talk about annual expenditures of several hundred million. And we cannot forget that agency use of the river for hydropower is FORCED to frame their work with the health of fish because of the endangered species act. Please don’t think for a moment that the mindset of the institution that loves these dams also loves fish. The scientists and such that work with the fish management may love the fish, but fish and dams are almost entirely mutually exclusive. Any publication that talks about how great the management of the fish in the waterways is doing is doing so because they are mandated to address fish.

So, we have a river with hundreds of dams. And we have fish that need the water, and an industry that has been made of the fish. And we have farms that draw their water from the groundwater and the river.  Roughly six to seven percent of the basin’s runoff is diverted to irrigating 8 million acres of farmland.  And when we talk about farms we are talking about wheat, and peas, and grapes, alfalfa and apples, and an abundance of goods that largely have been utilizing chemical inputs that then get back into the waterways. And I mention this because we cannot stop viewing this area as an interconnected system. We live in a huge aquatic basin – of course it is connected!

The dams, the farms, the cities all use this water. And we often casually think of the fish using it too. As if they are just another stakeholder in the process, albeit a weak and voiceless one unless you count the people who consider themselves uniquely tied to the fish. Meaning indigenous peoples and commercial fish operations. If it were not for the work of the Intertribal Fish Commission, we would not have as well managed fish as a resource at all.  And that is because these people love the fish. And they have had to fight to get into a position where their claim to the river has some force.

We have to acknowledge that the aforementioned claim is in direct competition across this waterway and others because of the way that water rights are allocated. And farmers want that water even if it means no fish. Because fish people and farm people are not the same and have been set into competition because of the technological wonder of dams and wells. Agriculture in the basin provides well more than 50,000 direct and secondary jobs (and, actually, well more but the counting of those jobs is another issue). It is an 8 billion dollar a year industry in Washington state alone and growing. Farms have a vested interest in keeping the water flowing, but they are beginning, because of the work done by agencies, to understand that the groundwater is going, going gone. And the rights to the water in the river are taken, taken taken. And that our waterway is already in not good health after years of contaminated runoff and use as a road and temperature changes because of dams.

And here we are, loving the rivers because we can windsurf and because of fish and grapes. We are beginning to understand the climate change shifts of wrongtimed snow melt, reduced snowpack, faster than normal flows, and increased population pressures. Wondering or ignoring how this will work. And the answer is that it won’t. And it isn’t. It is an illusion and its breaking points are showing. We literally cannot leave the future of our home in the hands of regulatory agencies because those agencies like to act as if they are not interconnected. Contamination levels and total maximum daily loads and prior claims to use are regulated as if they are largely independent of the impacts that they cumulatively have. Because to address the cumulative impacts is incredibly difficult and there are prior legal frameworks and interstate commerce and plans that aren’t regulated by the other regulatory frameworks because that is not how we manage it all. That we are caught in managing things instead of loving them and being realistic about what is happening cumulatively shows that we have even greater problems. And we don’t have the finesse that the planet does to manage things through their interconnectivity and cumulative impacts.

If we allow coal and oil to flow from Montana and North Dakota with impunity, all that management of fish is moot. Fish are sensitive, and they cannot withstand even greater pressures on the pH of the water. We can grow them in tanks and haul them in buckets all we want, but all that money for restoration and management and commercial development will be for nothing.  More dams need to be removed. Coal should not be transported through here. Farming the desert in the manner we have been has to stop, and the population of the area has to get it into their heads that what we have become habituated to is excessive.

So, when we hear people talking about jobs that will come from energy development, please let them know we have jobs here that will be destroyed by the plans that they are supporting. A hundred rail jobs may seem like an incentive, but the thousands upon thousands of jobs that are vested and can be vested in the management, restoration, and enjoyment of our river and its connection to agriculture and fish and energy infrastructure are here now. And, somewhat akin to water rights, these jobs and livelihoods and identities should be given priority in the planning of any new development.  In fact, we really should be thinking a little more about not developing instead of increasing more developments to be managed.

Lastly, this overview does not cover our fishing industries along the coast nor does it cover forestry as a type of agriculture, but they are also impacted by our use of the Columbia Watershed and the disconnected plans of energy transport. We plan on talking about just that connection next time we meet.  We hope to see you there! Brickhouse, 6:30,  September 2nd.


Partial Reading List:

“Ag’s Contribution to Washington’s Economy.” Accessed August 20, 2013.
“Columbia River Basin: Large Aquatic Ecosystems Fact Sheet – Columbia_river_lae_fact_sheet.pdf.” Accessed August 19, 2013.
“ColumbiaBasinMap.jpg (JPEG Image, 1745 × 1437 Pixels) – Scaled (18%).” Accessed August 20, 2013.
“Economic and Fiscal Contribution of Irrigated Ag.” Accessed August 20, 2013.
“Federal Caucus Salmon Recovery.” Accessed August 19, 2013.
“Feds’ Salmon BiOp Five-Year Check-In: Most ESA-Listed Fish Increased In Abundance Since 1990s.” Accessed August 19, 2013.
“GWMA Groundwater.” Accessed August 19, 2013.
“OCR Home | Washington State Department of Ecology.” Accessed August 19, 2013.
“Snake River – Hells Canyon Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) and Water Quality Management Plan (WQMP) – 10007_SR_HCTMDL.pdf.” Accessed August 20, 2013.
“The Columbia River System Inside Story – Columbia_river_inside_story.pdf.” Accessed August 20, 2013.
“USGS – Central Columbia Plateau – Yakima River Basin – Publications and Products.” Accessed August 20, 2013.
“USGS FS-170-96: Organochlorine Pesticides and PCBs in Aquatic Ecosystems of the Central Columbia Plateau.” Accessed August 20, 2013.
“Walla Walla District – Programmatic Sediment Management Plan.” Accessed August 20, 2013.
Fish Specific, a little list for a big topic:
“FPC Adult Salmon Web.” Accessed August 20, 2013.

Groundwater Specific, wow!
“Why Are We Losing Our Groundwater? – YouTube.” Accessed August 19, 2013.
“Cbp-economics.” Accessed August 20, 2013.
“Columbia River Long-Term Supply and Demand Forecast.” Accessed August 20, 2013.
“Ecology Groundwater Assessment Studies.” Accessed August 19, 2013.