The Social Justice Challenge encourages bloggers to write on a monthly theme related to contemporary issues. When I saw the theme this month of “Water,” I knew that nothing could be more relevant to the topic of Lewis & Clark and their exploration of the west than water, and what has happened to the rivers they explored.
On Monday, we took a look at The Changing Missouri River, and today I wanted to do the same for the Columbia River. When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first arrived at the Rocky Mountains, they hoped to find a version of the famous “Northwest Passage.” That is, they hoped that the Missouri River had its headwaters in the mountains very near the headwaters of the Columbia. That way, Americans traveling across the continent would have an easy river route to the Pacific coast, with perhaps only a short portage between the two rivers.
The Columbia River roars about 1200 miles from its headwaters in British Columbia to its mouth at the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Oregon. Besides its beauty and violence, perhaps its most notable characteristic to Lewis & Clark was the salmon. The river teemed with an overwhelming number of the fish, the staple food of the Indians for hundreds of miles around. As Clark wrote:
The number of dead Salmon on the Shores & floating in the river is incrediable to Say and at this Season they have only to collect the fish Split them open and dry them on their Scaffolds on which they have great numbers. – October 17, 1805
It is estimated that some 16 million salmon made the annual journey upstream to spawn in those years. The Indians could harvest thousands of fish and dry them for the off-season without even making a dent in the population. For the men of the Corps of Discovery, who were red meat eaters, the salmon soon wore out their welcome as a dietary mainstay. They even resorted to trading with the Indians for dogs for the stewpot just for the sake of variety. They never could have imagined that one day, both the raging rapids and the salmon would be all but gone.
The extermination of the Columbia River salmon can be compared with the slaughter of the buffalo. Beginning in 1866, large numbers of people from the eastern United States emigrated to the Pacific Northwest via the Oregon Trail. With them came ruthless commercial fishing of the river. Giant mechanical scoops resembling ferris wheels were built to hoist the fish out of the river by the thousands. By 1896, some forty canneries had sprung up and were supplied with over three million fish a year, a number that was sustained until about 1934, when the numbers began to fall in alarming proportions. Quite simply, the seemingly inexhaustible supply of fish had been harvested until it could no longer sustain its own numbers. By 1990, the total catch was a mere 257,000, and several species had become extinct. The total salmon population in the river is about 10% of what it was in Lewis & Clark’s time.
The other dramatic change on the Columbia (and, along with overfishing, a major cause of the decline of the salmon) was the construction in the 1930s and 1940s of eighteen major dams on the river and its major tributary, the Snake. These dams submerged stupendously beautiful landscapes, drowned Lewis & Clark’s rapids, and and converted the river into a series of placid lakes. The trade-off was to harness the great power of the Columbia in exchange for irrigation and the electricity that runs Portland and Seattle and fueled the rise of the Pacific Northwest as an economic powerhouse.
Although most of the dams are equipped with so-called “fish ladders” to allow salmon to continue to pass upstream, the juveniles need artificial management to make the trip the other way, back to the ocean. Most of the fish eggs are managed in hatcheries, and the Army Corps of Engineers uses giant pipes to suck young fish into barges and give them a ride down to the coast to begin their lives as adults.
So what can we learn about water from the rivers of Lewis & Clark? As our friend, water resources engineer Tom Mullen, wrote after an epic solo trip along the Lewis & Clark waterways:
Ultimately, rivers mirror our own values and culture. To mistreat their flow is to abuse our collective integrity. When cities and communities turn their backs on rivers, residents turn away from topology, wild grass, pelicans, and battling eddies that formed reasons why they built cities along the water in the first place. … To improve the overall quality of the rivers for the future, we have to get creative, not frantic. We waste time and energy if we consider the past as a source of material for complaining about.
In other words, what’s past is past. What the future holds makes Lewis & Clark’s journey look like a cakewalk. The hard decisions ahead are up to us.
More great reading: The Evolving Landscape of the Columbia River Gorge (great pictures and lots of comparisons between what Lewis & Clark reported and what came after)