A post about fish and communities

I read this a few months ago, and it struck a deep chord then. It keeps resonating now, reverberating and echoing out, wider, wider. It’s a very short post, worth reading in its entirety:

The Watershed and the City

[The city is] one factor of the essential basis of human social reality the world over . . . The other factor is of course the land-base upon which the city depends: the Country, the Hinterland, the Wilderness, or any other civilized abstraction of what, without exception the world over, is in reality a Watershed. . .

So when we strip away all projection of human desire and delusion, and though the later can be reduced to rubble, we are left for better or worse with this: The Watershed and The City.  Forest and field, highway and Latifundia; all else is contingent on this essential relationship.

Over the last year, I’ve gotten so many indications from the Them guiding me that water, water systems, networks of ocean and rivers and streams – watersheds – are Really Important, you know, you should pay attention to what’s going on there, and so I have, in fits and starts. It’s a bit weird trying to research something when I don’t know what bigger-picture goal is the desired end; it limits my motivation to Read All the Things, or stay focused, so I read a bit here and a bit there, I do some volunteer work in one local watershed (which is really two, since the one feeds into another – uh, which feeds into another . . .), but I otherwise don’t know what to do with the various pointers and encouragement to investigate the topic. I just keep going and the pieces accumulate and stick together and form a larger picture.

Not long after reading that post, I was contacted by a new entity, and in the process of figuring out where I was supposed to go for a meeting, I found myself zooming in on a spot that revealed . . . a rather significant water feature, in a locally very significant watershed: one that supplies drinking water to my city.

This was followed by an article in the news the next day about the same watershed. I did some additional research, because it seemed this place is Important, and that lead me to a large document prepared by the city to address habitat conservation in the watershed, which is primarily focused on a few species of fish. There are maps in the document, showing historical locations where those fish were found compared to current locations of the same species.

The river that this watershed feeds into has been dammed in 2 places to create reservoirs for drinking water. The current maps show how the primary fish species under consideration pretty much do not exist in that watershed any more. It isn’t the biggest river in the region; indications in the document are that the historical fish populations was never very large compared to other rivers and streams, but I wonder just what the long-term impacts on the health of the overall watershed are. (Some dams in an adjacent watershed have been removed in recent years, with the result that fish populations are returning to the areas they were blocked from.)

Rivers are dammed to support human communities: prevent flooding, create electricity, store water for drinking or irrigation – and in the process, other communities are damned.

Even with fish ladders in place, the migration of anadromous fish is impacted badly, assuming the fish ladders are even designed for all anadromous species in a given river (salmon, yes, we – white people/settlers/colonists/newcomers – care about them; lamprey and sturgeon, which use the water differently, or cannot fit through salmon-friendly passages, not so much). And by extension, the rest of the non-human communities the fish are a part of lose, too: not just the big charismatic species like eagles and bears that eat returning spawning salmon, but the trees that benefit from the nitrogen and other nutrients, brought back from the ocean by the grown fish, and everything else in those networks, in ways we have barely begun to understand. The changes aren’t always as dramatic as population crashes of certain well-known salmonids, but what is the long-term impact? We don’t know; this accidental experiment is not even two centuries old. Further, if you want to take an anthropocentric view (well, a certain kind of anthro-) – what is this depletion of nutrients going to end up costing us?

We already know that indigenous human communities that historically relied on the fish population for their own existence lose. Fish, historic fishing sites, entire villages and ways of life (Celilo Falls, anyone? What an appalling thing to have done, the inundation of Celilo).

I found a series of articles (the Megafishes Project) about a project to study the largest known freshwater fish. Why? Because their numbers are dropping, have dropped, severely, in not very much time, and if you don’t study them now, there might be no time to learn anything about them. Fishing and boat propellers are threats, and in several of the species profiles, there was a familiar refrain: the river they are native to, it has been dammed. They used to spawn in the reaches of the river upstream from the dam. They can’t get there any more. There’s no passage for them through the dam.

Will a little more knowledge of their existence be enough to keep any of these species from vanishing forever? Only if enough is done to keep them alive; some are now being captive bred so that at least some population will remain, and perhaps can help rebuild a wild population. (How well will it do if you don’t change the environment you’re putting them back into?)

The troubled story of the world’s giant freshwater fish underlines the environmental crisis facing many rivers and lakes, Hogan said.

The world’s fresh waters are experiencing declines in biodiversity far greater than those seen in the oceans or on land, he pointed out.

Although rivers and lakes only make up about 0.01 percent of Earth’s water, about 8 percent of all species and 40 percent of global fish diversity are found there.

But more than a fifth of the world’s known freshwater fish species have become extinct or gravely threatened in recent years, Hogan said.

. . .

Nancy Knowlton is director of the Center for Marine Biology and Conservation at the University of California, San Diego. She said one of the most immediate threats facing megafishes is that they’re so poorly understood.

“In the ocean we have already lost most of the apex predators and other large fish, but at least their plight has received a lot of attention,” Knowlton said.

“These freshwater giants are even more threatened because of their much narrower ranges and because we know so little about them, making them much harder to protect.

“Megafish in the ocean are known to play crucial ecological roles, but we have no idea of what the ecological consequences might be for rivers and lakes that are missing these giants,” she added.

We have no idea what the ecological consequences might be, but the dams go up anyway.

In some of the articles was mentioned the fact that a challenge for some of these fishes is that their rivers flow through not just one, but several different countries, so coordinating conservation efforts becomes complicated. (This happens on a smaller scale even within the confines of a single country, when you have different organizations – like government bureaus – responsible for different aspects of an ecological system, and rivers run through multiple states.)

Of course it’s not just the city and the watershed, singular: it is city and state and country, watershed within watershed within watershed, sets of intersecting places. Human-defined (somewhat arbitrary, prone to disruption) boundaries that interfere with proper understanding of and ability to live well with the actual boundaries (i.e., watershed edges; largely fixed, though significant earth movements can adjust them) that influence our built places.

The impacts on fish populations and their associated other-than-human communities are bad, but the future is not entirely terrible; when dams come down, fish start swimming and spawning in the places they were denied, even if decades have passed. The dams on the Elwha River were built in the early 20th century and were taken down in steps between 2011 and 2014, to restore the watershed, releasing large quantities of sediment, which had built up in the “lakes” behind the dams (a threat for salmon eggs when it started flowing; they must have clean water or they suffocate).

The demolition of these two dams has become an evolving scientific experiment, one that entails the restoration of an entire watershed, from salmon to alders to otters. The two dams had starved the lower reaches of the watershed of sediment, and the lakes that formed behind them were filled with unnaturally warm water. Lake Mills and Lake Aldwell also elevated water temperatures downstream, and marine nutrients failed to cycle into the ecosystem, affecting species throughout the food chain, from black bear, eagles, and osprey at the top, to frogs and flies.

. . .

Before the dams were built, the Elwha was one of the Northwest’s great natural resources, hosting steelhead and all five species of Pacific salmon: sockeye, coho, chum, pink, and the legendary Elwha chinook, which commonly reached 100 pounds. Ten salmon runs — each genetically adapted to a specific seasonal migration — meant that the Elwha was full of migrating fish year-round, some 400,000 annually.

But the Elwha dam put a stop to that. Despite official warnings, the builder violated an 1890 law requiring fish ladders on dams, substituting a hatchery instead. Other dam builders followed suit, blocking salmon runs throughout the Northwest. That end-run determined state policies for decades, giving rise to a hatchery-dependent fishery during the hydroelectric boom of the 1920s to 1960s. For years, fish appeared in declining numbers at the base of the Elwha dam. By the 1990s, native sockeye were extinct, spring chinook and chum nearly so. Pink salmon were endangered, and summer steelhead scarce.

These declines, along with a 1910 prohibition against fishing, deprived the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe of a key food source and cultural touchstone. After their fishing rights were restored in the 1970s, the tribe objected to licensing the dams, citing their impact on the salmon fishery and a poor safety report predicting the Elwha dam might fail during high flood conditions. Built before federal regulation, it had never been licensed; Glines Canyon was overdue for relicensing. By this point, the dams served a single Port Angeles pulp mill.

In 1992, Congress passed an act that made the removal of the dams possible, though almost 20 years passed before they began to be removed.

And now, the speed with which parts of the river system are returning to a normal state is surprising people working on the project (article is from July 2014):

Just three years into dam removal, scientists say they’ve been surprised at how quickly changes are happening.

The most stunning change is taking place at the river’s mouth. Millions of cubic yards of sediment held behind the dams have flowed downriver and pushed the estuary out about a quarter mile. A once rocky, cobblestone scene is now sandy beach — ideal for forage fish, juvenile salmon and shellfish.

“New estuary is literally being created. It’s wild to watch,” said Anne Shaffer, marine biologist with the Coastal Watershed Institute in Port Angeles. “Fish are using this freshly formed habitat, and they’re using it with such abundance.”

Marine creatures such as eulachon, or candlefish, and Dungeness crab have been documented in the estuary for the first time in decades.

“I was surprised by a lot of things, but I was stunned by how fast the estuary has expanded,” said Robert Elofson, river restoration director with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.

And from September:

Olympic National Park says that for the first time in more than a century, chinook salmon have been spotted in the upper reaches of the Elwha River following the recent removal of two dams.

Fisheries staff equipped with snorkels confirmed the presence of the three big fish above where the final chunks of the 210-foot-tall Glines Canyon dam were blasted away last month.

When so much of the environmental news is about catastrophe and loss, news like this gives me belief that proceeding with . . . whatever it is They are guiding me towards isn’t futile.

When I got my current job, I had a feeling there were Reasons for it. It doesn’t feel like a significant step towards whatever my long-term career will be, but it is definitely emotionally and financially supportive. Several months ago, though, I started becoming suspicious that there is more to it than those most-obvious benefits: it takes less than a minute to walk out the door and reach the banks of the (dammed, channelized, Superfund-Site-afflicted) river once called Walama.


About Fjothr Lokakvan

More or less Northern Tradition polytheist.
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