June 1, 2004:
It is heartening but also a little disquieting to see powerful
people painfully crafting decisions to protect such delicate
and powerless things as salmon eggs.
Tough negotiators in Sacramento, Calif., have determined that
this spring the lower American River, with its headwaters
on the western side of the ridge above Lake Tahoe, will run
two to three times higher for several weeks than it otherwise
A key objective is to see that salmon eggs in the shallows
of the American will not be left high and dry before they
hatch. Another is to reduce salinity levels in the Sacramento-San
Joaquin Delta, the source for much of California’s urban
and agricultural water. With high salinity, city people complain,
agricultural land is damaged and fisheries suffer.
These objectives have been defeated by decisions made in some
previous years. This spring’s decision is encouraging,
but I can’t help wondering if they know what they are
People who run the dams, invest in the farms, run the fishing
boats, look after urban water needs, plan for summer hydroelectric
demand, think about resident and tourist water recreation,
and care for the interests of nature itself are all at the
table. They have had to try to balance an amazing array of
economic and environmental factors to arrive at this decision:
How much water is to be stored, how much is to be released
from the dams?
These godlike responsibilities are assumed without possessing
anything like divine omniscience, or the wisdom embedded in
eons of evolutionary adaptation. The recent historical record
shows that people are flying by the seat of their pants when
trying to govern a river -- more often than not, as in the
American’s case, they are simply trying to compensate
for the last major mistake they made.
My thoughts on this topic are more troubled than usual because
of what I learned at a recent conference on pesticide use.
A University of California-Berkeley scientist, Tyrone Hayes,
demonstrated that extremely low and legally permitted levels
of pollution from the herbicide atrazine have disastrous consequences
for frog populations, and thus for the entire food web, of
the Platte River running out of Colorado and Wyoming and through
Zoologist Warren Porter, of the University of Wisconsin, showed
that the relationship between the concentration of pesticide
pollutants and effects on organisms is not always linear.
Very low, legal dosages of contaminants sometimes may have
stronger effects than the much higher dosages that are prohibited
by legislation. The ancient doctrine of toxicology -- “the
dose makes the poison” -- implies that more of a toxin
is always more dangerous than less. But Porter’s work
suggests that animal immune systems can sometimes protect
against massive toxic assaults better than against subtle
ones. Porter’s findings present troubling challenges
to the way we try to protect water quality through law.
After attending such conferences for decades, one is left
with a sour sense that it takes a large amount of science
to impart a slight amount of wisdom to humans as they modify
Back to rivers. As a kid, I witnessed the flood of 1951 in
Salina, Kan. Most thought a big mistake had been made in managing
the water behind the local dam. But hadn’t it been constructed
for flood control? Decades later, and after the catastrophic
Mississippi Valley flood of 1993, the Corps of Engineers is
admitting what geographers at the University of Kansas tried
to tell them in the 1940s -- that the dams and levees they
were building would intensify big floods.
I’m rooting for the baby salmon in the American River,
and I’m hoping the Delta doesn’t get too salty.
And I’m praying for the great flights of sandhill cranes
that will be searching for their food in the Platte River.
But I’m not convinced we are nearly smart enough, and
most of all, nearly humble enough, to make the right decisions
to protect their welfare.
||Angus Wright, co-author of "To
Inherit the Earth: The Landless Movement in the Struggle
for a New Brazil," teaches environmental studies
at California State University-Sacramento. He is a member
of the Prairie Writers Circle at the Land Institute in