Steering nature by the seat of our pants

By Angus Wright, Prairie Writers Circle

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 would.

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 doing.

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 Nebraska.

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 nature.

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 Salina, Kan.