As a commercial river guide, outdoor educator, and graduate student studying sediment transport, I’m drawn to connecting people to wild places and understanding system processes.
For me, this happens on rivers.
Like many boaters, articulating my affinity doesn’t come easily. I try to encapsulate the joy of a multi-day river trip and connect it to conservation, but there always seems to be a missing sliver.
To love a river is simple. The joy and peace come as waves crash on the bow of my boat, as I sit along an imbricated cobble bar as the moon rises, as I dip into glassy green water.
To love a basin—the entirety of a river—is a challenge. If I love a basin, does that mean I have to love the hydroelectric power plants that covered infamous rapids? I use the power it produces, so I contribute to its proposed perpetuity. I can get fresh water on demand, though I often forget clean drinking water is not a reality in much of the world.
Embracing a basin takes work. It’s to love more than the delible seeps and peculiar springs of a remote river canyon. It’s to love the open agricultural plane, the channelized hydraulics in concrete spillways, the mutated forms as it reaches sewer. To love a basin is not glamorous, but it is necessary. As climate change and increasing demand further exacerbate water availability, it’s critical to comprehensively evaluate how we interact with our water resources on an integrated ecological, industrial, and recreational level. In the field of natural resources management, it’s often said the past informs the future. By acknowledging the steps that have been taken for conservation, we can spur even more powerful change.
This year is a banner year for our nation’s waterways. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act celebrates its 50th anniversary. In creating this act, Congress addressed the duality of dam construction and the need to preserve our nation’s waterways, noting “…the established national policy of dams and other construction at appropriate sections of the rivers of the United States needs to be complemented by a policy that would preserve other selected rivers or sections thereof in their free-flowing condition to protect the water quality of such rivers and to fulfill other vital national conservation purposes.”
Half a century is both a cause to laud and a reason to dig in for more innovative conservation. Our country has nearly three million miles of rivers, and less than one-quarter of one percent of them are designated as Wild and Scenic.
The Columbia River Basin, one of North America’s major drainages, flows more than 285,000 square miles through seven U.S. states and one Canadian province. By definition, the drainage includes the main stem of the Columbia River and its many tributaries, including the Snake River and Willamette River. Both of these tributaries are fed by lower-order streams, all of which provide valuable resources: clean drinking water, habitat, recreation, and more.
Only fragments of the basin’s rivers are protected. There are more than 450 dams in the drainage, which produce more than half of the electricity consumed in the Pacific Northwest. Consequently, many communities in the region get their drinking water from these same streams. Along its 1,200 miles, the namesake river in the drainage irrigates 600,000 acres of agricultural land. Many of us who recreate in these spaces also consume these resources. As we do so, we must be able to navigate the crux of the issue: where and how to preserve the socio-ecological balance of rivers.
Dam and reservoir operations often come to a head when discussing endangered species. In this region, salmon and steelhead are paramount, though many species are affected. They have been a historical food source for indigenous populations, a critical ecosystem facet, and a necessity of the fishing industry. When these anadromous fish can no longer carry out their biological life cycle, the population declines, altering the ecosystem as a whole.
Preserving habitat is not just arbitrarily preserving fish species. Riparian regions provide extensive ecosystem services. Rivers are a part of the system of natural places that give us outputs we often take for granted: clean water, clean air, waste decomposition, nutrient cycling, and more. When we disrupt these areas, we disrupt the processes that provide economic value without associated input cost. Hampering ecosystem processes imposes additional financial externalities.
As river recreators, we have tremendous staying power and economic output. A recent study by the Outdoor Industry Association found the industry created 7.6 million jobs in the U.S. People want to be outside. We spend $887 billion annually on outdoor recreation. From camping to rafting to hiking to fishing and more, many rural communities are centered on these driving commerce. Each year in the U.S., we spend more on gear for water sports than we do on movie tickets. We want to be outside. We want to connect with others and with the special places. We want to do this in a holistic manner, by recognizing how rivers enrich our lives.
The moon rises above all stretches of river: those cached by dams, those artificially channelized, those metamorphosed into drinking water repositories, those where fish rise, those where waves overtop boat hulls, those whose banks we sit alongside. Collectivist action and creative thinking is a necessity in order to have sustainable water systems in the arid West.
The rhetoric of “saving” wild places is a sticky one, because it separates ingrained functions. I love big-water, flood-stage boating on a free-flowing river on the Salmon River in the Columbia River Basin, but I also appreciate using electricity from the dams along the length of the Snake River. This is not to say we should develop our water resources willy-nilly, nor is it to say there are not important places worth protecting. This is not to say we should not advocate for the protection of our river systems.
This is to say: if we love a river, we have to love a basin.
This means loving the multi-use stakeholders who show up in a different craft than ours. This means appreciating the value of economic outputs and ecosystem services. Holistic integration of these functions means compromise. From compromise dawns greater understanding, understanding that can actually result in a net positive outcome: cleaner waterways, connected ecosystems, and a new generation of water lovers.