Mar 27 2014
In Water Shock, I wrote the following in the Afterword: Researching the historical data for this book has deepened my understanding of how temporary are the changes to our ecosystem made by human endeavors, from the Hohokam in the Valley of the Sun (Phoenix, Arizona) thousands of years ago to the Central Valley in California in the twentieth century.
In the span of just fifty years in the area west of the one-hundredth meridian, government, politicians, and private industry altered the ecosystem in the West. But in future centuries, the land will likely return to the equilibrium of the past, driven by none other than—water.
The word “temporary” can be seconds, years, or centuries depending upon the agenda of the person or entity using it. California’s current drought is, in the minds of many, a temporary environmental inconvenience. Could it last ten years? Twenty years? Is that still considered temporary?
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is trucking salmon fingerlings, due to the drought, to help them return to the sea via the Sacramento River. Dams erected a little more than fifty years ago are the biggest impediment to the fingerlings being able to return to the sea to grow up and then come back to spawn in the upper reaches of the Sierra drainage rivers.
Years ago our home was in Soap Lake, Washington, across the street from a Bureau of Reclamation scientist whose sole job it was to measure the temperature of the water behind Grand Coulee Dam near Ephrata, Washington. The reason? To assure the salmon climbing the fish ladders at Grand Coulee would survive in the still water behind the dam. He would go out in his little boat with a thermometer on a string and measure the water at various depths. It was, and likely still is, a serious business. In that part of the State of Washington summer temperatures can rise to triple digits. Before the dams were built, the salmon roamed freely, spawning in the tributaries to the Columbia River, and hatching there. And then they returned to the ocean to grow to adult fish. An entire Native American population’s diet was rich in salmon.
In the early 19th century, when Lewis and Clark were camped at the mouth of the Columbia River, before they headed east to begin the long trek back, their diaries note they became very tired of eating the salmon, but it was available. Then along came the Bureau of Reclamation in the early 20th century to place dams on rivers all around the West to provide irrigation water and power. In the span of fifty to one hundred years the ecology of the West has been changed with unintended consequences. Granted, on the plus side the power produced, among other factors may have helped the US win World War II. But the downside is yet to come full circle as the dams succumb to the millions of tons of silt behind them.
Back to the Sierra salmon fingerlings. Just how long can a society afford the cost of trucking them around the dams? A year, ten years or more? It’s a temporary solution. Do we take out the dams, as some suggest? And what does this have to do with “The Day Southern California Went Dry”? A lot. That Sierra water the fingerlings hatched in is part of San Diego’s water supply. Today we are trucking fingerlings, tomorrow we may be trucking water to alleviate the thirst of San Diegans….unless we quit applying band aids and get serious about indirect and direct potable recycling systems for San Diego.